Saturday, 24 April 2021

The international standard for "vaccination passports"

There continues to be a lot of talk about smartphone apps that would “prove” that you (or the person whose smartphone you borrowed or stole or hacked) have been vaccinated for COVID-19. I talked about the problems with these in an earlier article.

But what you need to know if you are once again thinking about international travel after you are vaccinated for COVID-19 is that (1) anyone crossing an international border or flying internationally in the foreseeable future is likely to have to show evidence of vaccination for COVID-19, and (2) there is currently one, and only one, international standard document — established by international treaty and regulations — for showing that you have been vaccinated for COVID-19 or any other disease.

This is not a smartphone app or digital passport (none of which are even close to international standardization or legal recognition) but the same document that has been used for this purpose for decades: the passport-sized World Health Organization International Certificate of Vaccination or “Yellow Book”.

The best way to be sure that you will be able to satisfy current and future vaccination requirements for international travel is to get your vaccinations recorded in one of these standard yellow books.

Most COVID-19 vaccination sites don’t have blank yellow books available, so get one before you your vaccination appointment. Blank yellow books are currently out of stock from the U.S. Government Printing Office, but have been available (quite legitimately) from third-party resellers on eBay, Amazon.com, and elsewhere. Even in the U.S., it’s fine to use the World Health Organization version if that’s easier to get a copy of than the U.S. version.

I got my COVID-19 vaccination shots entered in my yellow book without difficulty, once I presented my yellow book and explained that it was the international standard form of vaccination record. I also got the white card being used in the U.S. for COVID-19 vaccination records.

My partner had a similar experience. Ask politely, and be prepared for a short wait while they figure out what to do. Older health workers may remember the yellow book from when it was routinely used to record cholera and yellow fever vaccinations required for some international travel, but younger vaccination site workers may never have seen one before. My fellow travel writer Christopher Elliott also reported a similar experience.

Some countries will undoubtedly recognize the non-standard U.S. white card, but others may insist on the yellow book, especially if you don’t want to install their proprietary app on your smartphone. If there’s any possibility that you might want to travel internationally, get your vaccination recorded in your yellow book.

Link | Posted by Edward, 24 April 2021, 06:13 ( 6:13 AM) | Comments (3)

Monday, 22 February 2021

Why I'm suing the National Archives

Last night my attorney Kel McClanahan, Executive Director of the nonprofit National Security Counselors law firm, assisted by NSC intern Brendan Stautberg, filed a complaint on my behalf in Federal District Court in Washington against the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), seeking a “declaratory judgment” that NARA is required to preserve and release to me and the public the records of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service which were transferred to NARA when the NCMNPS shut down in September 2020.

I’m extremely grateful to National Security Counselors for volunteering to take this case pro bono (I’m paying only for filing fees and other out-of-pocket expenses) and for their excellent work under a tight deadline (unlawfully) imposed by the National Archives through an ultimatum and threat of imminent destruction of the government records I have requested. They are a nonprofit law firm; if you’d like to help make it possible for them to offer pro bono services to journalists, researchers, and whistleblowers in cases like this, you can make a tax-deductible donation here.

The filing of the complaint came just in time, since NARA had threatened to destroy these records today unless I sued them.

There’s detailed information about the lawsuit on a separate page of my Web site. But I thought I should post a few brief explanations here in my blog for my friends who may wonder what’s going on.

Why does an anarchist ever sue anyone? I’m not invoking the government to force someone else to do something. I’m invoking one of the government’s own internal mechanisms, the courts, to try to get the government itself to follow what it professes to be its own rules.

I don’t sue people lightly. In fact, I’ve never sued a person. The only other time I’ve initiated a lawsuit was, like this case, a lawsuit in Federal court against a Federal government agency, not a person. In 2010, represented pro bono by the nonprofit First Amendment Project, I sued a division of the Department of Homeland Security under the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act, to try to find out what records the DHS had about my international travel. While stalling my request, the DHS retroactively exempted its database of travel history files from the Privacy Act, and the court upheld the application of that exemption to a request I had made three years earlier. That’s the only time I’ve ever before been a party to civil litigation of any sort. I’ve been a criminal defendant, but that wasn’t by choice — it was the government’s decision to drag me into criminal court.

But why would anyone sue the National Archives? What are they doing wrong?

This case isn’t so much about what the National Archives are doing, but what they’re not doing: In this case, they aren’t preserving government records, and they aren’t making them available to the public. In other words, I’m suing to get the National Archives to do their job.

This case is not, lest there be any misunderstanding, about copyrighted works or private records obtained by the National Archives. I’m suing to get the National Archives to fulfill its core mission: preserving records of the government’s activities and making them available to the public to inform understanding and debate.

The records at issue — which the National Archives has in its possession and control, but has been trying to keep secret and has threatened to destroy — are records created by and for a Federal government agency, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS), whose job was to conduct research and make recommendations to guide Congress, the President, and the courts. These records show what research the NCMNPS conducted or commissioned, what evidence and arguments it considered, and how it decided on its recommendations. The NCMNPS itself did its best to try to keep these records from ever becoming public, and designated them for immediate destruction when the NCMNPS shut down. But the duty of the National Archives, in accordance with the Federal Records Act and the Freedom Of Information Act, is to preserve these records and make them available to the public on request.

Congress, the Supreme Court, and the public are being asked to accept those recommendations as conclusionary, authoritative, and presumptively well-founded — but without knowing what, if any, research or evidence they were based on, or what arguments were or weren’t considered in the closed-door deliberations of the NCMNPS, with respect to which the only publicly available information comes from the incomplete responses to my FOIA requests. Many members of Congress want to use the recommendations of the NCMNPS as political cover to avoid public Congressional hearings and debate. But if Congress is going to “defer” to the NCMNPS for its decision, that makes public disclosure of the records of the still secret NCMNPS research and closed-door consultations with selectively invited lobbyists as important as those of Congress itself would be.

Don’t expect any more news about this case any time soon. I’ll post updates here, but Federal cases move slowly. It’s more likely that this lawsuit will result in changes in policies and procedures that will benefit other FOIA requesters, researchers, and members of the public in the future than that it will result in the release of additional NCMNPS records in time for them to be considered by Congress or the Supreme Court in their decision-making this year about women and the draft. But the reasons this lawsuit was necessary — the secrecy of the NCMNPS deliberations and the lack of public disclosure of the research, evidence, and arguments that do or don’t support the recommendations of the NCMNPS — underscore why Congress needs to hold its own full and fair hearings, especially on the issues including compliance and enforcement that the NCMNPS didn’t consider, and not take the NCMNPS report as a conclusionary excuse to avoid full public Congressional debate.

Link | Posted by Edward, 22 February 2021, 09:32 ( 9:32 AM) | Comments (0)

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Who leaked the changes to Sen. Ted Cruz's airline reservations?

After U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) changed his airline reservations to cut short a family vacation in Cancún, Mexico, United Airlines has reportedly launched an internal investigation into how the change to Sen. Cruz’s airline reservations became public.

Sen. Cruz made reservations for himself and his family for three nights at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Cancún (US$309 per night per room plus tax), and bought tickets for whole family for flights on United Airlines from Houston to Cancún leaving Wednesday and returning today.

After he was spotted at the airport and on the plane to Cancún, Sen. Cruz changed his reservations to return to Houston on Thursday. Sen Cruz initially seemed to be claiming that this was his plan all along, to “escort” his wife and daughters to Cancún, and then leave them behind and return after just one night. But two reporters, first Edward Russell of the travel industry news site Skift and then Kris Van Cleave of CBS News, were able to confirm with unnamed “airline sources” that Sen. Cruz was originally booked to return from Cancún to Houston today (Saturday), but changed his reservations Thursday morning to return that day. [Update: Peter Alexander of NBC News also confirmed the changes to Sen. Cruz’s flights with an unnamed “source with knowledge of the situation” although not necessarily with the airline.]

Should we care? Actually, yes, regardless of what we think of Sen. Cruz and his actions.

I have nothing to add to the discussion about Sen. Cruz’s decision to fly away to Cancún with his family for a vacation at a luxury hotel on a tropical beach as soon as the airports in Houston re-opened after a two-day closure caused by an exceptionally severe winter storm that left many of his constituents throughout Texas without running water, electricity, or heat, and while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. My only trip to Cancún was for a travel blogging conference (although I stayed for a few more days after the conference) and it’s not a place I would choose to go for a vacation, although you may have different tastes, and Cancún is not entirely without redeeming merits.

But there’s an important lesson in the fact that so many people had access to Sen. Cruz’s reservations and the history of changes to those reservations. And if, as I expect, United Airlines is unable to identify the leaker(s), that will be even more significant.

Continue reading "Who leaked the changes to Sen. Ted Cruz's airline reservations?"
Link | Posted by Edward, 20 February 2021, 10:38 (10:38 AM) | Comments (4)

Saturday, 23 January 2021

"Advanced surveillance tech on the border poses dangers to both migrants and citizens."


[Larger image of no-fly flowchart; PDF with key to acronyms and color-coding; FAQ.]

Why Biden’s ‘Virtual’ Border Could Be Worse Than Trump’s Wall: Advanced surveillance tech on the border poses dangers to both migrants and citizens. (by Felipe de la Hoz, The Nation, 22 January 2021):

…Unlike a border wall, an advanced virtual “border” doesn’t just exist along the demarcation dividing countries. It extends hundreds of miles inland along the “Constitution-free zone” of enhanced Border Patrol authority. It’s in private property and along domestic roadways. It’s at airports, where the government is ready to roll out a facial recognition system with no age limit that includes travelers on domestic flights that never cross a border.

To an extent, these technologies’ ability to fade into the background can leave them relatively invisible to domestic audiences — until suddenly they’re not. Take the no-fly list, which is more like an unreviewable no-fly algorithm. Every time someone tries to check in for a flight, their information is sent to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which makes real-time decisions about whether they’re allowed to board the plane or not. If rejected, you are given no reasoning, shown no evidence, given no process by which this decision was reached, and have few avenues for redress. Even the specific criteria used for such determinations is secret. It’s a tool that many Americans might agree with on principle, but it has expanded into a tool of wanton state power without any public discussion. “People are shocked to the point of near disbelief when you tell them this is happening. It doesn’t occur to them that there’s an invisible checkpoint at the airport,” said Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant with the Identity Project and writer at the affiliated Papers, Please! blog.

Hasbrouck believes the principles applied at airports will be extended to the physical border. He said DHS officials “complain constantly and explicitly about the fact that, unlike at the airport, where we know who’s getting on the plane before they get on the plane, at the land border anybody can just show up. They regard this as a horrible defect that they’re working assiduously to rectify.” The language in the immigration bill fact sheet points in the direction of technological processing of migrants in a way that will limit their ability to just show up….

Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s strategy has been to push the border south under the often-correct assumption that for the American public out of sight means out of mind. The squalid refugee camps created by the Migrant Protection Protocols program are just across the border, and have gotten a fraction of the attention of other border abuses. For an administration hoping to sidestep domestic controversy over the treatment of desperate migrants while still set on controlling their flow and entry, the use of technology to develop what Hasbrouck called a “kind of pre-approval that externalizes and moves the borders further and further away” might seem like the best option….

Whatever its direction, there will likely be an expansion of immigration and border technology, and it will involve a slew of private actors. In 2011, Obama infamously canceled a years-long “high-tech border fence” project that had accomplished little except provide $1 billion in taxpayer funds to Boeing. Yet technological capabilities have improved dramatically since then, and the vision of a pervasive and interconnected travel surveillance apparatus is now more realizable. Entire companies have formed to cater to these contracts, including Anduril, headed by crypto-fascist troll Palmer Luckey, who has close ties to mass surveillance firm Palantir (not coincidentally, both are companies named after objects from Lord of the Rings, by people who probably cheered the villains’ quest for absolute power)….

Other defense and security contractors are creating the infrastructure to ingest and manage millions of immigration applicants’ and US sponsors’ sensitive biometric data… in what Hasbrouck termed the “unholy alliance” of public and private surveillance interests and efforts….

(For the record, I didn’t say that any of this would be “worse”, just different, and that wasn’t a question asked in the inteview. Unlike bloggers, reporters for major news media don’t generally write the headlines under which their stories are published.)

Full story from Felipe de la Hoz in The Nation; more from Felipe de la Hoz in The Baffler here and here; my FAQ about no-fly decision-making from the Identity Project blog.

Link | Posted by Edward, 23 January 2021, 14:05 ( 2:05 PM) | Comments (0)

Friday, 8 January 2021

Supreme Court asked to review Constitutionality of current male-only draft registration requirement

Today the National Coalition For Men, a men’s rights organization represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Constitutionality — now that women are allowed in all military combat assignments — of the law which requires men but not women to register with the Selective Service System for a possible military draft.

Read below for my FAQ about what this does and doesn’t mean, and what happens next. (Click here for links to the Supreme Court docket, pleadings, press releases, and additional commentary and analysis.)

I’ve been tracking this case up and down through the lower courts since 2015, and I attended the oral argument last year before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans that led to the ruling that the Supreme Court is now being asked to review.

I’m actually a footnote (note 3, p. 4) to the petition for certiorari filed today with the Supreme Court, which cites my Web site about the draft as the authoritative source of one of the Department of Defense documents I obtained in response to my Freedom Of Information Act requests to the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS). Apparently this document isn’t available from the DoD, the NCMNPS (which removed many files from its Web site before it shut down), or any other government source. The NCMNPS summarily and improperly “closed” almost all of my outstanding FOIA requests and appeals just before it disbanded, and designated most of its records to be immediately destroyed. I managed to get all of the NCMNPS records transferred to the National Archives, which is also threatening to destroy most of those records, but has released some additional files.

Today’s filing of a petition for certiorari (petition with appendices) is no surprise. But for those who haven’t been following the issue closely, it raises questions about the seemingly strange bedfellows — a women’s rights project defending a “men’s rights” group and its members? — and the future of Selective Service registration.

Here’s some of the background to today’s filing with the Supreme Court, what it does and doesn’t mean, and what’s likely to happen next in Congress and the Supreme Court in 2021 on the draft, draft registration, and Selective Service:

Continue reading "Supreme Court asked to review Constitutionality of current male-only draft registration requirement"
Link | Posted by Edward, 8 January 2021, 11:06 (11:06 AM) | Comments (8)

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Would a "vaccine passport" app make flying safer? No.

Travel advice columnist Christopher Elliott has already been taking flack from some travel companies and (sadly) some travelers for urging people tempted to travel to stay home until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control (as I’ve also urged).

Now Chris has probably made some more enemies with his latest column in the Washington Post arguing (as I’ve also argued) for continued use of the current international standard “Yellow Card” (International Certificate of Vaccination) as a way to record COVID-19 vaccines, rather than some new smartphone-based immunity passport app such as the ones being pushed by airlines. I’m with Chris a hundred percent on this:

The best Yellow Card may be the Yellow Card, also called the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis. It might be the leading candidate for an international coronavirus vaccine passport. It’s already recognized internationally. If you are vaccinated for any travel illness, like yellow fever, the provider will send you a Carte Jaune. When you get a coronavirus vaccine, just ask your health-care provider to note your vaccination on your Yellow Card.

I dug out my Yellow Book, which I always carry when I travel internationally but haven’t needed for several years, and I’ll bring it when I get a COVID-19 vaccination, as soon as that’s available for people in my fairly low category of risk and inessential work.

Expanding on his column in the Post, Chris quotes me in his newsletter on a couple of points that may call for more explanation.

First, face masks at airports. Here’s the deal:

Wearing a mask is the most significant thing we can do to protect ourselves and others in public spaces. When I think about flying during the pandemic, the part of the trip that frightens me most is the moment at the TSA checkpoint when I would be forced to remove my mask.

There hasn’t been nearly enough attention paid to how much the TSA is endangering travelers’ lives during an airborne pandemic by forcing them to remove their face masks masks for ID checks, whether those visual checks against ID photos are made by TSA agents or contractors or by automated facial recognition.

Forcing each flyer to remove their mask — in the same spot where another traveler was just doing the same thing, and another will be after them — is likely to cost many more lives than those that might be lost as a result of people both selfish and dishonest enough to lie about their infection or vaccination status in order to fly while unvaccinated.

So I think it would be a mistake to frame this issue as “saving lives vs. privacy”. Any “vaccine passport” (whether on a cellphone or a WHO/CDC Yellow Book) depends on verifying that the person presenting the “passport” is the person to whom the data pertains. And that is done by making people remove their masks, so that their faces can be compared with ID photos.

Through compelled mask-removal, lives are being sacrificed to ID verification and control of travel, which is an obscene betrayal of any idea that the Department of Homeland “Security” and the Transportation “Security” Administration are making us more “secure”.

At San Francisco International Airport (SFO), for example, San Mateo County health orders require the wearing of face masks throughout the airport, as in all other public spaces. The TSA and its contractors are forcing anyone who wants to fly out of SFO to violate those health orders. It’s unclear whether they have legal authority to do so, but it’s certainly immoral.

If the DHS and TSA really wants to make flyers safer, rather than use the pandemic as a pretext to advance long-term goals of surveillance and control of our movements, they should end the ID checks that require travelers to remove their face masks at TSA checkpoints.

If President-Elect Biden is serious about applying science to policy during the pandemic, this is something he should order on his first day in office.

Second, the “security” of vaccination certificates:

Regardless of whether vaccinations are recorded on paper or electronically, people who are selfish enough to try to travel while unvaccinated and potentially infectious will still be able to cheat.

Nothing in any of the proposals, whether for wider use of the WHO/CDC “Yellow Book” or any smartphone app, would stop someone from borrowing the ID and phone of someone who looks similar, and flying in their name.

So with “vaccine apps” as with paper records like the Yellow Book, it’s not about “security vs. privacy”. It’s about “security theater as pretext for surveillance and control”.

Don’t travel until you’ve been vaccinated, unless you need to. Seriously: I mean “need” (enough to risk strangers’ lives — other travellers and airport workers, and their families — as well as your own), not “want”.

But just say no to any demand to use a travel app as a condition for travel, by air or otherwise.

Link | Posted by Edward, 3 January 2021, 14:16 ( 2:16 PM) | Comments (1)

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

"Solomon Amendment" linking student aid to draft registration repealed

Applicants for Federal financial aid for higher education will no longer be required to have registered with the Selective Service System for a possible military draft or answer questions about their Selective Service registration status or compliance.

Among the provisions included in the 2000+ page coronavirus pandemic relief and Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which was signed into law by President Trump on Sunday, is a section (Title VII, Section 701 et seq.) which effectively repeals the 1982 Solomon Amendment that has required men to have registered for the draft in order to be eligible for Federal student grants or loans.

Continue reading ""Solomon Amendment" linking student aid to draft registration repealed"
Link | Posted by Edward, 29 December 2020, 14:41 ( 2:41 PM) | Comments (1)

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 10

Manila (Philippines) - New Orleans, LA (USA)

The Amazing Race 32 finished on the 50-yard line of the football field inside the New Orleans Superdome, with Will asking his partner James to marry him, and James saying, “Yes,” immediately after they won the million-dollar prize for finishing first in this season of the reality-TV race around the world.

There’s certainly an argument that if you can stay in love through a trip around the world, you can stay in love for a lifetime. It doesn’t always work out that way, though: One of my friends who met their spouse while travelling has finally concluded that it just doesn’t work when they aren’t travelling together, and is getting divorced. Travel can stress test a relationship, but many couples have discovered in recent months that “sheltering in place together” can also stress test a relationship. The takeaway, I think, is that life on the road is not the same as life “at home”, whatever that means, and neither is a good test of the other.

With the winners of this season moving on to marriage, where does that leave The Amazing Race?

The cast of “The Amazing Race 33” had been selected and filming had begun with two legs in England and Scotland in early 2020. But filming was suspended and the cast and crew were brought home to the USA early in the novel coronavirus outbreak. Like many real-world travel planners, the TV producers say they have postponed, rather than cancelled, their travel plans, and will resume filming of the race, with the same cast, starting from the same place where they broke off, as soon as that can be done safely (whenever that may be).

I suspect that once it is filmed, the next season of The Amazing Race will be rushed through post-production and broadcast as soon as possible. Once travel around the world is considered safe again, there will be both a surge of pent-up demand for travel and a flood of advertisements from travel companies that have struggled not to go bankrupt and that will be competing desperately for their share of the first infusion of post-pandemic travel spending. As soon as it is safe to film and safe to travel, “The Amazing Race 33” will be an extremely hot property in the ad sales market, the more so the more quickly after it’s safe to travel it can be put on the air.

But what about travel in the meantime? And what about New Orleans?

While the countries most dependent on tourism are mostly small island nations, especially in the Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian Ocean, New Orleans is one of the most tourism-dependent of large US cities, along with Orlando, Las Vegas, and Honolulu. New Orleans is the poorest of those cities, overall, with the lowest wage scale, so the impact is especially likely to put a larger portion of impacted people and families below the survival line. And tourism to New Orleans is driven by conventions, parties (James and Will are planning a destination wedding in New Orleans, although they haven’t set the date yet), and the cruise port — all sectors which have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, and for which the effects are likely to be longer-term than some other travel segments.

So New Orleans is a good place to think about the future of travel and the relationship between paying guests and paid hosts, during the pandemic and after.

It’s not yet safe to travel, but too many people are travelling anyway. I’m not talking about people who “need” to travel to keep essential infrastructure working, but people who are travelling for purely social or recreational purposes, or for reasons related to inessential businesses not needed to provide or transport food, shelter, health care, or other necessary goods or services.

Several understandable but ultimately dangerous fallacies underlie their thinking.

Some people mistakenly equate “harm reduction” with “safety”, and think that because they are following all available advice for travelling as safely as possible, they can travel safely. As one traveller put it to travel journalist Christoper Elliott, “I feel as though the CDC advice can be safely ignored because I practice social distancing.” But the CDC advice is not to travel if you can because travel during this pandemic is inherently dangerous, even if you practice social distancing and take other precautions to reduce the likely harm to yourself and others.

Notice that I said, “and others”. A second fallacy is that it’s OK to choose discretionary travel if we are willing to take the risks. But the risks of travel during the pandemic are that we might be infected and asymptomatic (perhaps since we were last tested, even if we were tested recently) or that we might become infected while travelling. In either case, we could infect others including (1) vulnerable people for whom the risk is greater than it is for ourselves, (2) people for whom travel really is essential (for themselves or others) and thus who don’t have a choice about our proximity and the risk it brings, and (3) people who earn their living providing services to travellers, and who are being given no other choices — at least in the USA — than to risk their lives to do this work to have money for food, housing, and other essentials.

If we choose to travel, we are choosing to impose potentially life-or-death risks on other people who didn’t get to make a choice about whether to assume those risks. That’s a very different thing than choosing to engage in activities that pose risks only to ourselves.

This is actually the case with respect to more travel activities than we realize. Backcountry skiers, downhill skateboarders, or people who choose to participate in other “extreme” or adventure sports and travel activities may think about whether they are willing to take the risk of a fall, but may not think about the risks their choices impose, especially if they misjudge their skill or the dangerousness of their activities in unfamiliar conditions, on ski patrollers, search-and-rescue workers, or other first responders and the like.

This analysis also applies to many pandemic-time choices closer to home as well. Paying a shopping service to deliver our groceries doesn’t reduce the total risk of disease transmission. It just shifts most of the risk from ourselves to the person we pay to go into the grocery store for us. The ethical tradeoff is similar to that of hiring a substitute to fight for us in time of war, as once was possible for people drafted into the U.S. Army.

A third fallacy is that, by travelling, we might be “helping” people in the places we go, or who work in the travel industry, by creating or sustaining jobs that will enable them to buy food and pay for shelter and other essential goods and services.

That’s the argument being made by the owners of travel companies so desperate to avoid corporate bankruptcy (even if corporate bankruptcies wouldn’t endanger their personal financial security or physical safety) that they are willing to sacrifice the lives of travellers and travel workers alike.

Perhaps the clearest statement of this immoral argument is a joint statement issued this week by a coalition of travel industry trade associations and lobbying groups including the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), Airports Council International (ACI), World Economic Forum (WEF), and International Chamber of Commerce (ICC):

“Vaccines… must not be a requirement to travel as this will further delay the revival of the already ailing Travel & Tourism sector, which needs to restart now to save itself, millions of jobs in the sector and beyond, and the global economy. Getting people back to work will also provide enormous health benefits to those around the world, whose livelihoods have been affected by the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.”

The imperative language of “must” and “needs” is used to put “the global economy” above debate, and to put the needs of an economically “ailing” business sector ahead of the needs of people who are ailing and more than a million of whom around the world have already died.

The death of an “ailing” company doesn’t mean the death of its (former) employees. As I’ve noted previously, bankruptcies of travel companies won’t necessarily lead to loss of jobs, depending on who buys the properties at the bankruptcy auctions and how they are repurposed — perhaps for more labor-intensive uses. The costs of corporate bankruptcies are borne by owners, banks, and other investors — those who can best afford them without being placed at risk of hunger or homelessness.

But the more important flaw in the argument that travel is the best way to “help” workers is that it assumes that the only possible way to transfer money is in exchange for work. What happened to public services? Charity? Human rights? A social safety net? Why can’t we imagine the possibility of transferring money or providing services (food, shelter, health care, etc.) to those who need these things now, without requiring a simultaneous quid pro quo of labor?

It should be obvious that the industry claim that, “Getting people back to work will also provide enormous health benefits to those around the world whose livelihoods have been affected” is as nonsensical as it would be to claim that being forced back into dangerous workplaces would have “health benefits” for ourselves or any other workers. What would travel company executives, bankers, and other investors — who are, I presume, working from home themselves — think if we told them that it would have “health benefits” for them to go back into an office — not a private office in the executive suite but a crowded open-plan bullpen with a constant procession of vendors and other visitors — and that they didn’t deserve a continued income or food or housing if they weren’t wiling to do so?

Governments could — and some do, although not in the USA — pay survival stipends to those who need them to be able to afford not to work, if their usual work is (1) inessential and (2) can’t be done without increasing the risks of infecting themselves and others. That certainly describes most jobs providing services to travellers.

Travelling and hoping that some of your spending will “trickle down” to the workers who serve you directly (and who are the ones most placed at risk of COVID-19 by doing those jobs) is a very inefficient way to transfer money to those in need. The most urgent need of furloughed workers in tourism or any other industry sector isn’t “jobs”. It’s food, shelter, and health care — or money to pay for them.

On a larger social scale that doesn’t depend on private charity to meet human needs, tell Congress to send money to furloughed workers to enable them to stay home, and to fund services for the hungry and unhoused, not to bail out banks and investors in travel businesses in the hope that some of that money will trickle down to needy workers.

On a smaller scale, if you are thinking about end-of-the year charitable donations and you want to support laid-off hotel and restaurant workers in New Orleans while there are no conventions, cruise ship departures, or party-weekend tourists, consider staying home and donating some or all of the money you would have spent on your trip to a food bank, soup kitchen or shelter in New Orleans. If you want to help workers at your favorite restaurants, stay safe by staying home and send those workers a donation of some of the money you would have spent by eating out, to help them also stay safe by staying home and out of a crowded kitchen where COVID-19 could easily spread. If you like to eat, send some money to a free clinic that serves field workers in the Central Valley who aren’t eligible for Obamacare because they are undocumented. I’ve made a $1,000 year-end donation to the Central Valley Mutual Aid Relief Fund, which prioritizes survival grants to people who don’t qualify for government or other relief programs.

We’ll all be safer and more likely to survive this pandemic if — for now — we stay home, stay as safe as possible, and work to make it possible for those who make our travel possible by providing travel services to also stay safely at home.

Bon voyage — but not until after the pandemic!

Link | Posted by Edward, 16 December 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1)

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 9

Siem Reap (Cambodia) - Manila (Philippines)

The most interesting aspect of this week’s episode of The Amazing Race 32 was what was said at the finish line by DeAngelo Williams, one of the pair of racers who finished last and was eliminated.

“Any regrets about coming on the race?” host Phil Keoghan asked DeAngelo and his partner Gary Barnidge.

“Yes,” DeAngelo answered emphatically and without hesitation. “The bad outweighed the good. I’d never come back on the show again.”

“But you didn’t enjoy the experience?”

“Well, I could have paid for it myself, and not had to race around the world.”

I expect that DeAngelo will be criticized for these comments, but I commend him for speaking truthfully and insightfully. I think he has an important message both for potential applicants for the cast of The Amazing Race and for real-life travellers.

Some viewers’ responses to DeAngelo’s comments are likely to include:

  1. “He ought to be grateful for having been given a chance to take a trip like that.”
  2. “What’s wrong with him? How could he not enjoy a trip around the world?”
  3. “That’s easy for him to say. He’s rich, and could afford to pay for a trip around the world himself — not like me.”

Each of these responses would, I think, be mistaken. Lets’s take them in turn:

1. Grateful?

Why should participants in The Amazing Race be any more “grateful” to the casting director for the show than anyone else is “grateful” to their employer for having hired them? The company that produces The Amazing Race, “World Race Productions, Inc.”, is a for-profit corporation, and wouldn’t still be producing the show for licensing to CBS-TV in the USA and other TV networks and distributors around the world if it hadn’t proven profitable and wasn’t still profitable after 19 years and 32 seasons.

The casting team for The Amazing Race is making business decisions about which on-camera personalities and images will draw the largest audience. They aren’t running a charity. They are handing out jobs, not gifts. It’s not as though participants on The Amazing Race are being especially well paid, by the standards of the work they are doing as TV actors and actresses. One reason reality-TV shows like The Amazing Race are relatively inexpensive to produce is that the cast members are paid only the union minimum wage for performers with on-camera speaking parts, regardless of how popular and how much of a draw to viewers they turn out to be throughout the season in which they appear.

2. Enjoyable?

I think I’d enjoy the challenges and the experience of being on The Amazing Race, aside from the cameras. But not everyone who enjoys travel would enjoy that sort of trip, and there’s no reason to expect them to.

DeAngelo isn’t unusual in regretting having been too rushed on his trip around the world. One of the most common regrets of people I’ve talked to after their trips around the world has been that they tried to go to too many places in too short of time. I generally recommend that people planning a trip around the world cut their initial wish list of destinations in half, or double the time they take.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t applied for the cast of The Amazing Race, and don’t plan to, for a different reason: I don’t want to put my relationship with my partner on such public display, especially not at times when we would be under such stress. I value that relationship too much. An issue for us when we travel has always been trying to postpone arguments about travel issues until we could have them in private. I know myself and my partner well enough, after decades of loving and living and travelling together, to know that audience participation in our arguments is exactly what our relationship doesn’t need.

[Update: On DeAngelo and Gary’s podcast the day after this episode was broadcast, DeAngelo made clear that he enjoyed the competitive challenges and the novel experiences staged by the TV producers that he couldn’t have done on his own. As Gary explained, “The part he hated was being confined to a room and not being able to experience these beautiful things in the world” during the 36-hour “pit-stop” layovers between legs of the race. The frustration DeAngelo described at being confined at a resort in Siem Reap, knowing that the Angkor Wat temples were just a view miles away but off limits for the racers, or being tantalized by the view of the Eiffel Tower from his hotel room in Paris without being able to visit it, will probably resonate with would-be travellers trapped at home by COVID-19 and unable to visit the places they are seeing on The Amazing Race or reading about in armchair-travel porn.]

3. That’s easy for him to say?

DeAngelo Williams earned more than US$40 million during his professional football career. He’s probably the richest person ever to appear on The Amazing Race — and might be the only one wealthier than host Phil Keoghan, who now has income from “residuals” from worldwide syndication and distribution of 32 seasons for the show to add to the up-front payments he’s received as on-camera star and co-producer. DeAngelo could certainly afford to pay for his own trip around the world.

DeAngelo and his partner on The Amazing Race 32, Gary Barnidge, have been buddies since they played together as running back and tight end, respectively, on the Carolina Panthers offense. Gary made “only” a little over US$10 million during his time in the NFL, but that’s still plenty to be able to afford a trip around the world.

But does that really mean that it takes a net worth of $10 million to take a trip around the world? Of course not. The cost of long-term travel in proportion to median US wages doesn’t have to be any greater today than when I wrote the first draft of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World 25 years ago. It’s still true, as it was then, that “Most people find that their total costs, including airfare, for an extended international trip are less than their living costs were at home.”

The possibility for Internet-enabled remote work in many office occupations makes getting time to travel vastly easier than it used to be. DeAngelo is unusual not in being able to afford a trip around the world, but in realizing that he could afford it. Most of those who are still working and still getting paid during the COVID-19 pandemic — a privileged minority, I know, but a large one — are saving much more than usual because they are spending less on travel, eating out, etc. during the pandemic. More people, than ever will be able to afford a long trip on their savings when it become safe to travel. (Although that won’t be for many months. For now, please stay home!)

I agree with DeAngelo completely on this key lesson about real travel and reality-TV: If you want to take a trip around the world to see and experience the world, pay for it yourself. If you want to compete in a race around the world, and have it shown on TV, apply for the cast of The Amazing Race.

What’s more important than DeAngelo being wealthy is that his wealth is independent of anything he does or says on a reality-TV show.

Many of the participants in some seasons of The Amazing Race have been aspiring actors, actresses, performers, social media stars, and the like — people hoping to parlay their appearance on the TV show into more lucrative longer-term jobs as public personae. We shouldn’t expect honest reviews or uncensored criticism from people in this position. You don’t get hired back for a job as a performer or rainmaker for someone else’s business by speaking ill of your sponsors. That’s especially true for the new breed of social media figures peddling their services to travel companies for “influencer marketing” — a form of advertising that’s almost inherently deceptive (that’s why marketing managers and ad buyers have concluded that it is more effective) and that’s increasingly displacing advertising that supports travel journalism published by outlets that separate plainly labeled advertising from editorial content.

Even with our friends, there’s a temptation to travel boasting. Most people like to be seen as people who have done things others would like to do — but haven’t. We are more likely to tell colorful anecdotes about the entertainingly bad moments on otherwise good trips to interesting destinations than to talk about the trips that were disappointing. We think we’d lose face with our friends if we admitted to having made a mistake or not done our homework about what to expect (or having done our homework but nevertheless having had expectations that weren’t met), or having spent money and valuable vacation time on a trip that didn’t prove to be worth it.

One of the hardest things about travel research and planning is getting good advice about places and activities that are popular but that we may not like. One of the key skills for guidebook writers is being able to give this sort of advice to a diverse readership.

We should be grateful to DeAngelo for using the independence his independent wealth allows him to speak the truth as he sees it, without having to demonstrate loyalty to, or curry favor with, the TV show’s producers in the hope of future paying gigs with them or others like them. All travellers need sources of information that aren’t beholden to travel companies and aren’t afraid to say what they like, what they don’t like, and, yes, which trips they wouldn’t take again and what places they wouldn’t go back to, given a world of choices.

What trips have you taken that turned out not to have been worthwhile? Please share your stories in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward, 9 December 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1)

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 8

Hyderabad, Telangana (India) - Siem Reap (Cambodia)

How do you get to, or from, Hyderabad?

From the first season of The Amazing Race, choices of airlines, routes, and connections were often decisive in the order of finish, and scenes in travel agencies, at airline ticket counters, and debating choices of airlines and flights figured prominently in the reality-TV show.

But in recent seasons, it’s become more and more common for the TV producers to pre-book all of the contestants on the same flights, or to choose routes where limited airline routes and flight frequencies made it almost inevitable that the racers would all end up on the same flights. All of the contestants on The Amazing Race 32 have been on the same flights on almost every air leg of their journey so far, including from Almaty (ALA) to Hyderabad (HYD) and again from Hyderabad via Bangkok (BKK) to Siem Reap (REP).

I can only assume that the TV producers have decided that most viewers aren’t interested in “airport fu”. For real-world travellers, however, the task of choosing airline routes and connections has become more and more challenging.

Until the present pandemic, the number of international routes with direct flights, and the number of connection options on routes without direct flights, has steadily increased and come to include less and less intuitively obvious possibilities.

To take a domestic US example, shortly before the pandemic I flew from Houston (IAH) to San Francisco (SFO) via Aspen, Colorado (ASE). No, I wasn’t going to Aspen, just changing planes. That’s not an obvious routing or connection point, or one that most booking robots would suggest. But the direct flights that day were sold out, the flights in and out of Aspen were half empty (despite a long list of people standing by for the sold-out IAH-SFO direct flights), and it was an easy connection — much easier than changing planes in Denver or some other large “hub” airport.

Internationally and on intercontinental routes, it’s even more complicated. New smaller-capacity long-range planes have made non-stop long-haul flights operationally feasible and economically viable on routes between airports with less traffic, including those that aren’t major hubs.

Twenty years ago, getting to or from a “provincial” city in India such as Hyderabad would have required connecting through Mumbai (BOM), New Delhi (DEL), or perhaps on a smaller number of airlines and routes through Kolkata (CCU) or, in South India, Chennai (MAA). Just as, earlier still, getting from most places in the US to Europe would have involved connections via New York, Washington, or Chicago, or to Asia would have required connecting through Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

Now both Air India and United Airlines are planning to start the first nonstop flights ever between the USA and South India in 2021. These flights won’t be to or from Chennai but between Bengaluru (BLR) and San Francisco — the longest nonstop route operated by any US-based airline and the fourth-longest nonstop flight operated by any airline in the world. Air India has also scheduled the first-ever nonstop flights between Hyderabad and the US, to operate to and from Chicago (ORD) starting next month.

These aren’t routes you would necessarily expect, much less during a pandemic (although the pandemic is probably making some travellers willing to pay more to avoid the risks of infection while changing planes). Neither HYD nor BLR is a major airline hub. It might soon be the case, however, that someone flying to or from Chennai (the birthplace of Amazing Race 32 cast members Aparna and Eswar, who got to the finish line in Siem Reap last and were eliminated at the end of this episode) might find themselves connecting via BLR or HYD, instead of vice versa as in years past.

Further complicating air travellers’ route-finding difficulties, a larger and larger proportion of flights, including even some long-haul flights, are on airlines that don’t participate in interline ticketing agreements with other airlines or the shared databases of the computerized reservation systems that drive most flight and fare comparison and booking Web sites. Few of those sites allow you to build an itinerary segment by segment to include connections between different airlines or at places that haven’t been programmed into their routing algorithms.

Figuring out how to get to or from Hyderabad today, tomorrow, next month, or next year, during or after the COVID-19 pandemic, would be even more difficult. While it is possible to spot some trends and make some predictions about pandemic and post-pandemic travel, it’s too early to say which airlines will go bankrupt, whether or how they will be reorganized, what new airlines will start operating with planes repossessed by lenders or bought at bankruptcy liquidation or foreclosure auctions, or where either old or new airlines will fly. Airline route maps and plans are being redrawn every day, and are unlikely ever again to look exactly like they did before the pandemic. How they will be different, nobody (including airline managers) can yet say with any certainty.

Future airline routes and flight frequencies will be shaped in significant part by political decisions about the amount and terms of government bailouts of airline investors and creditors and the conditions, if any, attached to those bailouts. The first round of US airline investor bailouts included requirements for certain levels of continued service, but it’s unclear whether similar or different flight frequency or route conditions, if any, will be included in the proposed second round of US government payments to airline companies. Other governments around the world are making similar decisions about explicit or implicit conditions for new subsidies to national airlines.

Airlines covid-times political agendas aren’t limited to demands for billions of dollars in government handouts. While fewer people are flying or paying attention to airline practices except those specifically related to COVID-19, airlines are working behind the scenes with captured, industry-friendly government regulatory agencies to make it even harder for travellers to enforce the minimal rights they have in the US as consumers, ticket purchasers, and flyers.

In this week’s episode of industry-backed Federal rollback of consumer protections, the DOT issued a new rule late on the day on the Friday after Thanksgiving, obviously timing the announcement to minimize public notice. The new rule redefines the criteria and procedures for handling of complaints of “unfair and deceptive practices” by airlines.

The DOT sees its role as enforcing deregulation and policing against any encroachment on its “laissez-faire” policies toward airlines by state or other Federal agencies, rather than as enforcing consumers’ rights. Federal law gives the DOT responsibility for investigating complaints and enforcing violations of the law which prohibits “unfair and deceptive practices” by airlines. The DOT can’t change this law (that would take action by Congress, and ad frequent air travellers themselves, members of Congress are generally more sympathetic to air travellers’ concerns), and can’t explicitly refuse to accept or investigate complaints. But the DOT can issue regulations to “implement” the law by “clarifying” what it means and establishing administrative procedures for complaints, investigations, and enforcement proceedings.

The DOT already tries to minimize the number of formal complaints against airlines by not mentioning the formal complaint process anywhere on its Web site and by sidetracking aggrieved consumers into an alternative “informal” complaint process that merely refers complaints back to the airlines.

I was one of the first to call attention to the DOT’s all-but-secret and almost-never-used formal complaint process, mentioning and describing it in both The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World and The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace. Economist, attorney, frequent flyer, and former Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman, with input from myself and others including members of the Flyertalk community, has published the first and to date only guide to How to file and pursue a consumer complaint against an airline - and the DOT “formal complaint” process. Mr. Edelman and others have begun filing formal complaints when they are victimized by some of the most systematically and egregiously unfair and deceptive airline practices and other violations of Federal laws and DOT regulations.

Most recently, for example, I reported on a formal complaint to the DOT by frequent flyer Mike Borsetti against American Airlines for violating the explicit requirement of Federal law and DOT regulations for airlines to make their tariffs available to the public. DOT is still sitting on that complaint, but in the face of a formal complaint — publicly docketed and visible, open to public comment, and requiring an eventual formal, public assessment and decision by the DOT — American Airlines partially backed down and restored its general international tariff rules (although not its tariff of fares or the rules of individual fares) to its Web site.

The new rules include new additional elements, not mentioned in the law, that must be proven before DOT will impose any sanctions for an “unfair and deceptive practice”. The new rules also include new procedures for complaints, including new one-sided opportunities for airlines to demand hearings (prohibitively costly and burdensome for complainants) and to contest proposed sanctions before they are imposed. The new DOT rules are intended to discourage complaints by making them less likely to succeed, and to make it harder for the DOT to impose sanctions against airlines in the future, even if the DOT some day wanted to do so (as it generally hasn’t to date).

This is, without any doubt, an airline protection rule, not a consumer protection rule. Both the proposed rule and the final rule were denounced by consumer advocates and members of Congress. Four Senators told the DOT “We urge the Department of Transportation (DOT) to stop promulgating rules that would hamstring its ability to protect aviation consumers…. Rather than implement regulations Congress specifically directed, DOT now seems solely focused on actually removing consumer protections.” DOT brushed off these and the rest of the comments, and promulgated the final rule essentially unchanged.

One of the few comments made by airlines that wasn’t adopted by the DOT in the final rule was a proposal by the airlines for the DOT to include provisions in this rule related to the privacy of personal information collected by airlines and travel agencies.

I’ve been calling for years for a Federal travel privacy law. In conjunction with other consumer organizations and in my testimony before the DOT Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protection (ACACP), I have urged the DOT to use its authority to enforce existing laws that (to at least some extent) protect air travellers’ privacy.

So you might expect that I would welcome a seeming about-face by airlines that now claim to be seeking Federal regulation of their privacy practices. It turns out, however, that what the airlines really wanted from the DOT was a sham privacy rule, the key provision of which would have been “clarification” of exclusive DOT jurisdiction over airlines’ and travel agencies’ privacy practices, and explicit preemption of regulation of those privacy practices by any other Federal agency including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

FTC privacy regulation and enforcement has been weaker than it should have been, but still better than nothing. The FTC has at least arguable (although ambiguous) concurrent (overlapping) jurisdiction with the DOT over some aspects of airlines’ and travel agencies’ privacy practices. At the ACACP hearing where I testified before the DOT, FTC privacy staff in attendance said they were willing to assist the DOT, which has none of the FTC’s privacy expertise or experience — but only if invited to do so by the DOT, which has no more interest in protecting travellers’ privacy than in protecting any of travellers’ other rights.

Apparently, airlines have now become sufficiently concerned about the possibility that the FTC might seek to assert its concurrent jurisdiction over airlines’ privacy practices, and sufficiently confident of airlines’ complete regulatory capture of the DOT, that they sought what they expected (probably correctly) would be a toothless fake privacy “protection” rule from the DOT as the price of, and pathway to, preemption of any possibility of privacy regulations or enforcement action against airlines by the FTC.

That the DOT declined this invitation to fake privacy rulemaking is a small victory, but only a partial victory. What is still needed, as I’ve been saying for more than 20 years, is explicit, sector-specific Federal privacy legislation explicitly applicable to airlines, travel agencies, and computerized reservation systems.

President Trump is, of course, the former owner of a failed airline, and is predisposed to instruct and expect his appointees to favor his fellow airline owners (as well as, of course, to favor hotel owners including himself). But the capture of the US Department of Transportation by the airline industry, so that the DOT has functioned as an industry-protection agency rather than a consumer-protection industry, dates back to the preemption provisions of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, at the dawn of neoliberalism, and has continued through Republican and Democratic administration alike. There is no reason to expect that things will change or that this deep-rooted problem will be addressed by the Biden Administration unless air travellers organize to demand change.

Minimal but far from sufficient first steps would be for the Biden Administration (1) to rescind this latest DOT rule and (2) to propose legislation (A) to act on the near-unanimous request of state Attorneys General to repeal the Federal preemption of state truth-in-advertising and other consumer protection laws as they apply to airline ticket sales, and (B) to protect air travellers’ privacy.

Link | Posted by Edward, 2 December 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1)

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