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’.
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:
“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?
Downgraded: Uses of college budgets
I know that baggage fees suck, but is refunding students who fly back to school their $15 or $25 baggage fees really the best use of college funds?
Downgraded: “Fakeproof” passports
I love stories like this: British authorities touted the safety and security of their “e-passport,” effectively a passport with an embedded radio-frequency chip. Hacker-proof, they claimed. It was cracked, cloned, and altered within minutes. Minutes. Not even hours, much less days, or weeks. Minutes. The computer researcher proved his point by changing the data to make the passport appear to be Osama bin Laden’s, complete with passport photo. Just awesome. (Recall that, as posted a couple years ago, the easiest way to destroy the chip inside your passport, if you’re wary of RFID scanners stealing your personal information, is with a hammer.)
Downgraded: American Airlines upgrades
A downgraded upgrade? Indeed. American recently rolled out copayment fees for many of its upgrade awards. See the changes on the award chart here. More evidence of the devaluation of miles, if you needed a reminder.
Upgraded: European booking war hilarity
Britain’s Thomson Holidays, part of the TUI Group, came under heat for offering vacation rentals in Greece or Turkey for £14 a week. At £2 a night, that’s some cheap sleeps. Why was this problematic? Competitors complained that Thomson was changing customer expectations, causing travelers to hold out and wait for the rock-bottom room rate, instead of booking early. Sounds like crybaby talk to me.
Upgraded: Alliance dalliance
It’s not really a surprise, given the urge to merge that’s rampant in aviation today, but American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia are looking to link up. They’re already alliance partners within Oneworld, and this isn’t a merger (yet), but the three airlines are trying to get antitrust immunity, so they can collude and set fares together. There’s really no benefit to consumers in this, especially if you fly between London and the United States. AA and BA dominate those routes, and the companies want to expand their price-setting power.
Upgraded: Google Maps’ sense of humor
Remember how Google Maps gave directions from the U.S. to Europe which included the instruction to swim across the Atlantic? Those jokesters recently did it again, suggesting you kayak across the Pacific Ocean. (They took it down, alas.)
Upgraded: Your chance to speak your mind on aircraft interiors
Friend of the blog Addison Schonland is doing some market research on aircraft interiors, and what you want to see inside those aluminum tubes. Take his poll, which will hopefully filter through to airline designers and execs attending the Aircraft Interiors Expo show next month.
Upgraded: Stormy weather
Priceline is once again rolling out a cute promotion, which promises to pay the cost of your vacation package if your trip is rained out, through November 16, 2008. The “Sunshine Guarantee” kicks in if a half inch of measured rainfall is present on HALF of the days of your trip. That’s a lot of rain, so don’t count on any payout. Kerala monsoon holiday, anyone?
There’s a cliché in detective dramas, where there’s a battle of jurisdiction. Say, the FBI swoops in and tells the local cops, “We’ll take it from here.” Bureaucracy always trumps justice. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a similar battle within the federal government’s security apparatus.
America’s no-fly list is so extensive and full of errors, that even Federal Air Marshals are being kept off planes.
False identifications based on a terrorist no-fly list have for years prevented some federal air marshals from boarding flights they are assigned to protect, according to officials with the agency, which is finally taking steps to address the problem.
Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) familiar with the situation say the mix-ups, in which marshals are mistaken for terrorism suspects who share the same names, have gone on for years — just as they have for thousands of members of the traveling public.
Hey, at least they’re not being kept off because they’re carrying weapons.
But it’s nice to know that the people whose sole job is to protect passengers in flight are being kept off planes. Why, why, WHY can’t a Federal Air Marshal, showing federal law enforcement credentials get on the damn plane?
The no-fly list is still a disaster. How about this nugget:
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this week that one major air carrier reports roughly 9,000 false positive hits on the watch list every day.
Let’s savor that one for a moment: One single airline has 9000 false positives. Daily.
And some of those might be Federal Air Marshals.
TSA agents apparently want more respect from the traveling public, and their white-shirted uniforms are being replaced this fall with more police-like regalia. The blue shirt, the badge… makes it a little harder to mouth off when you see that uniform, eh smart guy?
Beyond the cosmetic change, you’ll also face some changes if you’re traveling through America’s airports. As of this past weekend, you’ll need to pull “large video game consoles and DVD players” out of your carry-ons for separate screening, much as it’s been necessary to pull out your laptop for a while now.
Who travels with their Xbox? I guess some people do.
“Small electronic items, such as cellphones, MP3 players, iPods and portable video game systems do not have to be removed from passenger’s carrying cases.” …but how many frontline TSA agents will be requiring those items to be removed anyway? Who’s making book on that?
The new rules went into effect on Friday without prior warning, and some airlines sent out alerts to their customers.
How is it that the TSA can impose new restrictions with no advance warning, and yet it takes several weeks for long-standing restrictions on lighters to be rescinded? The argument that it takes a while for information to disseminate should apply to both new restrictions and rule revisions, don’t you think? I just don’t get it.
More things to pull out of your luggage generally means slower security lines. It’ll be a few days before I travel again, so in the interim, reports from the field are welcome. Is there a noticeable change on the front lines?
(image via Benet Wilson’s Towers & Tarmacs)
Downgraded: Any last smidgen of credibility for inflight radio interviews
If you’ve ever flipped through the inflight audio dial on American Airlines, you’ll know that there’s a channel (#9) devoted to “interviews.” University of Chicago economist and Freakonomics author Steve Levitt was invited to participate… for the low, low price of $3995.00. I honestly never gave those
interviews advertorials much of a listen, but the participants pay-to-play? And for that much?? Wow. ZERO credibility. (Thanks, Dr. Vino!)
Upgraded, possibly: The international airport welcome wagon
The U.S. Senate has passed a bill expanding the “model airport” program to other international ports of entry.
In April, the DHS designated Houston’s Bush International Airport as the first “model” port of entry, adding multilingual signs and informational videos narrated in Spanish, French, German and English to guide arriving travelers through the customs and immigration process. Arriving visitors are also presented with a “Welcome to the U.S.” brochure.
Unclear if general tone of the arrivals halls will feel any less like a police station, what with the fingerprinting and generally gruff attitude of every employee, but here’s hoping it helps.
Downgraded: British Airways’ standing among royal Qataris
Members of Qatar’s royal family were kicked off a British Airways flight for not following safety procedures, when they refused to take their seats. Why wouldn’t they sit? “After boarding, the women complained about the seats they had been allocated because they were next to men they did not know.” Setting aside the culture clash: None of this would have happened if British Airways would actually allow advance seat assignments for passengers on fares lower than the most expensive tickets. (Given their seating concerns, I imagine the royals flew discounted business business class.)
Downgraded: Your privacy (who knew it could be downgraded more?)
Under an expanded security agreement between the US and the EU, gobs and gobs of personal data can and will be shared with governments. If asked, airlines will be required to hand over any information they collect from you. Ask for a king-size bed as part of your package? Homeland Security will know. (Via Consumerist)
Upgraded: TSA Chief Kip Hawley’s internet presence
Downgraded: Logical explanations
Security guru Bruce Schneier is running a multi-part interview with TSA Director Kip Hawley this week. The first part is here. Bruce questions the logic of the 3-ounce liquid restrictions, etc. I’m happy to see Hawley reaching out again, but some of the answers just don’t cut it. For example: “If a TSO finds you or the contents of your bag suspicious, you might get interviewed and/or have your bags more closely examined. If the TSO throws your liquids in the trash, they don’t find you a threat.” Huh? What? Read the whole thing.
Getting paid to eat airline food?
Malaysia Airlines had to pay the equivalent of US$5,700 to a vegetarian who ended up eating chicken on board one of the airline’s flights. The payment covers “depression, shock, mental anguish and humiliation” that the man, an Indian Brahmin, suffered. Insert airline food joke here.
Flight attendants pan United’s “bill of rights”
United Airlines’ pathetic attempt at warding off the passengers’ bill of rights was slammed last week by its own flight attendants. No surprises there. After all, they’ll bear the brunt of the policy: Upset passengers tend to take their anger at the company out on the staff.
Resort fees revealed
One of my longtime pet peeves has been resort fees — the generally unadvertised yet mandatory surcharges on top of published hotel room rates. They’re the definition of customer-unfriendly. They’re usually unadvertised. They’re often mandatory. They’re sneaky, in that they make rates look cheaper than they actually are in online searches. And they charge you money for amenities that should either be standard to the room, or that you should be allowed to opt into. Grr… Anyway… Some destinations are more infested with the plague of resort fees than others. Hawaii is one such place. Now, via SmarterTravel.com, comes this handy list of resort fees in the 50th state. You’ll see the cost, what’s included, and whether or not it’s mandatory. Check it before you book.
Who’s on the No-Fly List?
CBS’ “60 Minutes” obtained a copy of what is allegedly the entire consolidated No-Fly List, and found numerous errors, including long-deceased revolutionaries, the 9/11 hijackers, and the president of Bolivia. The list contains 44,000 names, plus an additional 75,000 names of people who are required to undergo secondary screening. Honestly, I assumed the list would be even longer, especially when you consider that some people appear several times, with spelling variations (e.g., Usama and Osama bin Laden). (via Benet Wilson, whose blog just moved to new digs and got a new title)
Spend a day in Jamaica for $179
I get peppered with e-mails promoting all sorts of travel-related products and services, but this one struck me as sufficiently bizarre to warrant a post. Sandals Resorts is luring honeymooners by offering one-day trips to their Royal Caribbean Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica as a “test-drive.” For $179, you fly down in the morning, get their sales pitch (with lunch and a spa treatment seemingly included), and fly back in the evening. Mileage run on Air Jamaica, anyone? Have fun explaining that one to the passport control on your return.