Sunday, 25 August 2019
An "Airline Passengers' Bill Of Rights"?
Christopher Elliott reports today in Forbes on S. 2341, a proposal for an "Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights" introduced last month by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and four other Senators "If enacted, it would be the most significant consumer protection legislation for air travelers since the enactment of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978," Elliott quotes me as saying about this bill.
Here's more on what S. 2341 would do, where it has problems, and what else is important for airline passengers' rights:
S. 2341 would be an important step forward, with a few exceptions as discussed below. But it's important to keep in mind that the oldest and still the most important consumer protection rule applicable to airlines is the requirement that, as common carriers, they sell tickets only in accordance with a published tariff. Common carrier law, especially its tariff requirements, is and should remain the foundation for airline passengers' rights.
Airlines' efforts to escape from common carrier requirements, in order to replace tariffs with personalize pricing (so that, for example, an airline that figures out from your posts on Facebook that your mother is dying can charge you $10,000 for a ticket to see her before she dies), are the most significant threat to airline passengers' rights. Preserving the existing framework of common carrier law, and enforcing its tariff publication and tariff adherence requirements, is more important than any new conumer protection rules for airline passengers.
Christopher Elliott's article today focuses mostly on the substantive protections in the proposed law, but also notes some of the ways it would improve the structures and procedures for enforcement of existing airline consumrer protection rules, opening up enforcement to state consumer protection agencies and private lawsuits including class actions. Given the lax job that the U.S. Department of Transportation has been doing at enforcing the existing laws, the expansion of enforcement authority may be the most significant part of S. 2341 (and will probably be the portion most strongly opposed by the airline industry).
Here's what I think is most important in S. 2341, in order of importance, starting with the most important provisions:
- Section 211 of the bill, ending preemption of state consumer protection laws as applied to airlines, is huge. This has been the top request of state Attorneys General for many years, especially with respect to airline price advertising that violates state truth-in-advertising laws.
- Section 208 creates a private right of action for individuals to challenge unfair and deceptive practices by airlines. This is especially significant when coupled with the ban on mandatory arbitration and class-action waivers in Section 212. The result will be that contingent-fee class action lawyers will challenge many of the violations of air travelers' rights on which the U.S. Department of Transportation has declined to take action, even when gadflies and watchdogs have made formal complaints.
- Section 201 prohibits fees disproportionate to actual costs. That could be significant, but airlines will certainly try -- and may well succeed -- to game their cost accounting to attribute more than actual costs to these services, to justify high fees.
- Section 304 is technical but could prove significant. It appears to be intended to break some of the revolving-door cronyism between the Department of Transportation and airlines, and make enforcement officials behave like the law enforcement officers they are supposed to be, policing the airline industry rather than serving the airline industry as a "partner".
The questionable provisions in the bill are those in Section 203 on price "transparency". It's striking that there is no mention of tariffs or tariff publication in this section, or anywhere in S. 2341. Historically, as noted above, the way that transparency in fares has been guaranteed has been the statutory requirement for airlines as common carriers to sell tickets only at prices prescribed in a published tariff, and to make that tariff publicly available. (That's what "published" means.)
Section 203 could be interpreted as reducing what transparency is currently required, if it is interpreted as replacing, rather than adding to, existing common carrier tariff adherence and tariff publication requirements. I think the intent to require more airfare transparencyis good, but I would much prefer reinstatement of an explicit tariff publication and tariff adherence rule, and bundling of the provisions in Section 203 into that tariff requirement.
(Note that requiring publication of, and adherence to, a tariff, is not the same thing as the government dictating what prices or rules should be in that tariff. There is no contradiction between deregulation of prices, full freedom of airlines to set their own prices and routes, and the transparency requirement of publication of, and adherence to, a tariff.)
I'm not sure how much chance of passage S. 2341 has, starting with only Democratic Party co-sponsors and with the former owner of a (failed) airline as President. But even rich Republicans who are devout believers in deregulation and a hands-off attitude toward business are often frequent flyers who recognize that airlines are exploiting their oligopoly in ways that are unfair to travelers. Because air travelers are a relatively rich segment of consumers, air travelers' rights have more support from rich conservatives than most other consumer issues.
Wednesday, 7 August 2019
European Commission doesn't want to enforce its CRS rules
In May 2017 the European Commission finally agreed to investigate my longstanding complaint that the lack of adequate access controls or access logging for airline reservation data stored by computerized reservation systems (CRSs) violates the data protection provisions in Article 11 of the European Union's Code of Conduct for Computerized Reservation Systems.
More than two years later, I've finally received the first substantive response to my complaint: a letter from the European Commission proposing to deny my complaint for lack of jurisdiction, on the absurd grounds that data security is not regulated by the Code of Conduct for CRSs (even though the Code of Conduct includes an entire article on "Processing, access and storage of personal data" which requires that "technical and organizational measures shall be taken to prevent the circumvention of data protection rules through the interconnection between the databases and to ensure that personal data are only accessible for the specific purpose for which they were collected"), that the situation described in my complaint doesn't actually implicate these provisions of the Code of Conduct (?), and that complaints of violations of data protection rules must "in the first instance" be made before other authorities pursuant to the General Data Protection Regulations (notwithstanding the explicit provision of the Code of Conduct that its data protection rules "are complementary to and shall exist in addition to the data subject rights laid down by" the GDPR).
I've responded to the Commission with an explanation of why it should investigate and act on my complaint without further delay.
I don't know why the European Commission is so eager not to enforce its own regulations. I'm not alone in my puzzlement: That question was asked last year, without getting an answer, at a hearing in the European Parliament concerning the status of the Code of Conduct for CRSs. Similar questions about the lack of enforcement by the European Commission of the Code of Conduct for CRSs have been asked by European advocates for the rights of airline passengers.
In December 2018, the European Commission concluded a public consultation on whether the Code of Conduct for CRSs should be retained, repealed, or amended. (See my submission to the consultation.) But the European Commission has not yet released the results of that consultation or its recommendations for legislative action.
Sunday, 28 April 2019
Former Director of Selective Service says it's time to end draft registration
In what could, and perhaps should, be the beginning of the end for draft registration, the former director of the Selective Service System told a Federal hearing this week that the program he helped create and once ran is no longer working, that the database of registrants has become so hopelessly incomplete and inaccurate that it couldn't be used for a military draft that could be enforced or would stand up to due process and fairness challenges, and that it can and should be shut down entirely rather than trying to expand it to women.
As Director of Selective Service from 1979-1981, Dr. Bernard Rostker brought the Selective Service System out of "deep standby" and managed the startup of the currently ongoing registration scheme and the initial mass registration of five million young men for a possible military draft.
On Wednesday, 24 April 2019, Dr. Rostker was seated at the opposite end of the witness table in front of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) from the current Director of Selective Service, Donald M. Benton, an early Trump supporter and state campaign chair with no relevant experience or apparent qualifications for the Selective Service job who was appointed to the position as a political sinecure.
[Donald M. Benton, current Director of the the Selective Service System (near left) listens as his predecessor Dr. Bernard Rostker (far right) testifies that it's time to end the program they have both directed.]
Rostker is no friend of draft resisters, according to Alex Reyes, one of my comrades in resistance and Rostker's nemesis as Washington, DC, representative and spokesperson for the National Resistance Committee and probably among those who were investigated and considered for proesecution in the early 1908s for conspiracy and advocacy of draft resistance.
Continue reading "Former Director of Selective Service says it's time to end draft registration"
As I have argued in my recent paper the current system of registration does not provide a comprehensive and nor an accurate data base upon which to implement conscription. It systematically lacks large segments of the eligible male population and for those that are included, the currency of information contained is questionable....
The most recent district court ruling finding the unconstitutionality of a male only draft also is not an endorsement for registering or conscripting women.... I cannot think of a more divisive issue than the conscription of women, an issue that clearly does not need to be addressed at this time given that a return to a draft is so unlikely. This is a "fight" we really don't need to have. It is a "fight" that can and should be put off.... If this means that at this time the MSSA [Military Selective Service Act] needs to be repealed, so be it....
Thursday, 25 April 2019
My testimony to the National Commission on Military Service
News from the hearings: Former Director of Selective Service says it's time to end draft registration
[Testifying before the NCMNPS, 25 April 2019. Diane Randall of FCNL at left, back to camera. Photo by Jim Fussell.]
I've been invited to testify as part of a panel of expert witnesses at a hearing on the the military draft and the Selective Service System, including whether draft registration should be ended entirely or extended to women as well as men, on Thursday morning, 25 April 2019, before the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service in Washington, DC.
These hearings are the most important public discussion of the issue of military conscription in the USA in more than 30 years. So far as I know, the last time a draft resister was invited to tell the Federal government what they thought should be done about the Selective Service System was in 1972 when David Harris was invited to testify before a Senate committee considering an amnesty for some (but not all) draft law violators, an event he described in his book, Our War.
Read on for links to my testimony and more about these hearings.Continue reading "My testimony to the National Commission on Military Service"
Wednesday, 17 April 2019
The Amazing Race 31, Episode 1
Hermosa Beach, CA (USA) - Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Narita (Japan) - Tokyo (Japan)
There were fears that the The Amazing Race might have come to an end when broadcasts of the latest season, filmed last summer, were postponed repeatedly. But then the new season was moved forward abruptly to replace another series that was doing badly, and the race around the world is on again.
What's new this season is the absence of new faces: the entire cast of season 31 of The Amazing Race is comprised of experienced reality TV show participants. But unlike The Amazing Race 18, which was billed as a second chance for contestants on previous seasons of The Amazing Race who didn't win but were popular or unpopular enough to attract TV viewers, this season's cast of racers has been assembled from previous contestants not just on The Amazing Race but also on "Survivor" and/or "Big Brother".
That led to many questions in this first episode -- questions which perhaps will continue throughout the season -- as to how a race around the world or a reality-TV travel show more generally compares with these other reality-TV competitions.
The consensus seems to be that travel, or at least "The Amazing Race", is physically and mentally harder work than "Big Brother" or "Survivor". Travellers can try to be prepared, but they can't always plan or know what to expect. They have to make decisions on the spot, in real time, under pressure of hunger, fatigue, sleep deprivation, uncertainty, culture shock, sensory overload, and ambiguous, incomplete, or incompletely understood information.
The English word "travel" is derived from travail, the French word for "work". Historically, travel was indubitably work, and something almost everyone avoided. For one long-term perspective on those mostly-bad old days, see the deadpan descriptions in Norbert Ohler's The Medieval Traveller (which I found through a citation to it in my friend Gillian Spraggs' definitive treatise on one of the particular perils of the Olde English road, Outlaws and Highwaymen).
One of the simplest ways to reduce the travails of travel is to travel more slowly. Much of the work in travel is in getting from place to place, and staying longer in each place you visit means spending less of your time working at getting around. Since much of the contribution of travel to global warming comes from the burning of fossil fuel for transportation, slower travel is also, almost by definition, greener travel.
Sometimes, and for some people, risk enhances rewards. I went to a wonderful and upbeat slide show and talk this week by my smiling friend Shirley Johnson about her solo bicycle trip from the Arctic Ocean in Canada south to the Pacific coast of Alaska. Awareness of the risks heightened her perceptions and her enjoyment of the trip, she said. But travel can be consciousness-expanding without having to be scary.
Overall, travel has gotten ever easier, and I would argue that in most respects it is still getting easier than it used to be. When the first season of "The Amazing Race" premiered, just days before 9/11, it was promoted as a celebration of exploration and cultural encounter, not about terror or primarily about physical difficulties. When CBS decided to go forward with broadcasts of "The Amazing Race" after 9/11, it seemed to be statement that the world is still a fundamentally welcoming place. I wonder, though, how many people are now retreating from travel, or seeing it primarily in terms of risk rather than reward.
Is travel more fun, more work, or both than staying home in the "Big Brother" house, or staying put on the "Survivor" island? Is travel getting easier, or getting to be more work? Please share your thoughts in the comments -- and stay tuned.
Sunday, 31 March 2019
WOW Air is bankrupt
Iceland-based discount airline WOW Air went bankrupt and ceased operations abruptly last Thursday. All WOW Air planes were grounded wherever they were, and even flights for which passengers were already being checked in were cancelled. Travellers have been stranded in Europe, in North America, and in Iceland.
Iceland's location along the great-circle route between Europe and North America has made it a natural connection and stopover hub for trans-Atlantic air travel. Icelandair remains in business, serving those markets. And of course there have been many successful short-haul discount airlines. But while there have also been many attempts to at long-haul discount airlines, both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific, there have been few if any long-term standalone successes.
Having a short-hop airline go out of business is one thing. Having a transoceanic carrier go out of business in the middle of your trip, when you can't get home by train or bus or rental car, is another matter -- not to mention getting stuck on a remote island such as Iceland while changing planes, or on what was planned to be just a short stopover.
Travellers holding WOW Air tickets purchased in Europe may eventually get compensation under European airline consumer protection rules and/or government travel insurance schemes. Travellers who bought their tickets in the USA, for flights originating in the USA, may be able to recover what they paid form credit card companies, but otherwise will probably be out of luck. The USA has far weaker consumer protection rules than many other countries.
My FAQ on Airline Bankruptcies has more on what you need to know about dealing with airlines that are already operating in bankruptcy or arte in danger of going bankrupt. The WOW Air debacle is a reminder that, despite reassuring rhetoric about "reorganization" not really being bankruptcy (really it is) and continuing to operate "normally" and honor tickets while bankrupt (whether that will be allowed is in the hands of the bankruptcy court, which is solely concerned with the interests of other creditors and not with those of ticket holders), you generally should not buy tickets on any airline that is, or is likely to become, bankrupt. If you do, have a Plan B and budget for what you would do if the airline shuts down at any time before or during your trip.
Saturday, 30 March 2019
How writers monetize words: The marketplaces for writing in digital formats
The Internet is often depicted as a threat to traditional print publishing and traditional print publishers -- which it is. But the Internet has also created many new digital publishing and income opportunities for tech-savvy, innovative, and entrepreneurial writers, including ways to make money from business models and types of writing that would be difficult or impossible to exploit profitably in any print format.
The National Writers Union is the most diverse organization of working writers in the USA. Membership in the NWU is open to writers in all genres, media, and business models. As an elected national division chair of the NWU, and a representative of the NWU to several national and international coalitions and federations, I've seen more diversity of writers' revenue mixes than most writers themselves could imagine.
While I've been Co-Chair of the Book Division of the NWU since 2009, and have had books in print with what is now part of a major publisher for more than twenty years, I have earned my own living throughout that time primarily from writing published in digital formats as a staff writer, independent contractor, freelancer, and self-publisher of Web sites, blogs, and e-mail newsletters. Whenever I talk with an NWU chapter or other group of NWU members, I learn about more ways that writers are earning a living from writing distributed in digital formats.
But many of these revenue streams are invisible to the traditional publishing industry, technology companies, and government officials. This results in technology, business, and policy proposals that are irrelevant to writers' real working lives or, worse, that have unintended or deliberate but unnoticed adverse consequences for writers' livelihoods.
So I was pleased to be invited to give a overview on behalf of the NWU of the marketplaces for writing in digital formats at the start of a day-long conference on March 28th on Developing the Digital Marketplace for Copyrighted Works. It was the latest in a series of events on this theme -- and the first at which a writer was invited to speak -- organized by the Department of Commerce's Internet Policy Task Force and hosted by the US Patent and Trademark Office (which also has, despite its name, a division that deals with copyrights rather than patents and trademarks) at the USPTO campus in Alexandria, VA. (See the agenda with complete list of speakers.)
I hope that a better understanding of writers' diverse livelihoods will better inform business proposals, industry analysis, and policy making by the stakeholders and government officials from multiple Federal agencies who attended or watched the webcast of the meeting.
I've posted my slides below, along with the notes from my presentation below [updated to add links to the video archive and transcript]:
- How writers monetize words: The marketplaces for writing in digital formats
- Video archive (starting at 42:44)
I look forward to continuing the discussion of how writers make our living on the Internet -- and what it means for public policy -- within the NWU, with other writers' organizations, with other business partners and service providers, and with government policy makers. Please contact me if you're interested in a discussion or in hosting an event on this topic or on related issues of how writers can earn a living in the digital age.
Thursday, 21 March 2019
BBC "Race Across the World"
If you are looking for a fix of travel "reality" television in the meantime, I recommend the new BBC series, Race Across the World, now in the middle of its first season on BBC Two. "Race Across the World" premiered 12 March 2019, and all four episodes to date are still available for streaming on the BCC Web site.
The BBC tries to restrict streaming to IP addresses it thinks correspond to UK locations. But I've been able to preview the first few episodes of "Race Across the World", and I give it a thumbs up. It's the best of the localized spinoffs, imitators, and rivals of "The Amazing Race" in other countries and regions, and in some ways better than the US original.
The format of "Race Across the World" appears to be mostly based on Peking Express, the long-running and widely-franchised reality travel series first produced for a Flemish TV network and most successful in its Francophone version. The racers have to find their own routes -- using only surface transportation and no flights -- and pay for their own lodging (from a limited amount of money given to each team at the start of the race, plus whatever they can earn from casual labor along the way) between checkpoints that are typically several days journey apart. Sometimes they are on their own for a week or more at a time.
All of this makes the cast of "Race Across the World" solve more real-world travel problems than the teams on on "The Amazing Race", who are typically told what means of transport to use and what route to follow.
Other elements of "Race Across the World" appear to be inspired more by "The Amazing Race" than by "Peking Express". Curiously, there's nothing in the credits to "Race Across the World" to indicate whether ideas for the series were licensed from either of these conceptual predecessors in other countries.
The producers of "The Amazing Race" have said that they conceived the show first and foremost as a "relationship show" rather than a "travel show", and "Race Across the World" seems to have started out with the same soap-opera focus. There are only five teams at the start of Race Across the World", compared with ten to twelve on "The Amazing Race", so viewers get a more detailed sense of each of them.
The teams on "Race Across the World" can take any paid work or barter opportunities they can find, and some of them find work or charity on their own. However, each team is also given a guide to job opportunities along the routes they might follow that have been selected especially for the cast of the TV show. Some of these look more like the made-for-TV "challenges" and activities on "The Amazing Race" than like genuine jobs at ordinary local wages.
"Race Across the World" is more patronizing and Orientalist in its attitude toward local people in the places the race passes though -- at least as expressed in the voiceover narration -- than is the US version of "The Amazing Race". That's at least partially offset, however, by the advantages of the format, which makes the cast members on "Race Across the World" significantly more dependent on help from strangers they meet along the way, and allows them more opportunities for interactions with local people that aren't completely staged by the TV producers, than on "The Amazing Race" (although what you see on both of these shows is, inevitably, significantly influenced by the presence of the TV cameras and crew accompanying each pair of racers).
The stakes aren't nearly as high on "Race Across the World": only GBP20,000 (approximately USD26,000) to the team of two travellers who finish first, compared to US$1 million for the winners of each season of "The Amazing Race". Perhaps for that reason, the teams on "Race Across the World" don't seem to have done as much preparation for the show as a competition, and take at least a little more time for sightseeing along the way.
Among the avoidable mistakes made by several of the teams in the first few episodes of "Race Across the World" was arriving at borders to transfer points without having enough of the right local currency to pay onward bus, train, ferry, or taxi fares. US Dollars and Euros are the most "universal" world currencies (Euros having long since displaced British Pounds in that role), but there are many places where neither US Dollars nor Euros are accepted. While there's an ATM in the arrival area of most (not all) international airports, there's no guarantee of finding an ATM or 24/7 money changer at a land broader crossing, train or bus station, or ferry port. I always try to find some fellow traveller in the waiting area or onboard who can change change at least some money into the currency of my destination before I arrive.
The other mistake all but one of the teams made at the start of the "Race Across the World" was to assume that the fastest way to get from London to Delphi, Greece, without flying would be by train or by walk-on passenger ferery. As high-speed trains allow longer and longer distances to be covered within a day, most overnight trains within Europe have been discontinued. For longer distances, those travellers too poor to afford to fly mostly take cheaper long-distance buses rather than trains.
For tourists, there's an obvious drawback to travelling overnight, whether by train, bus, or ferry: You miss the scenery along the way. But if your goal is making long distances quickly and cheaply, look for the long-distance express night buses that transport workers between their jobs in Northern and Western Europe and their families and friends in Eastern and Southern Europe and the Balkans. The one team that took an overnight through bus to Germany, via the Dover-Calais night ferry, leaving after the last Eurostar (Channel Tunnel) train for the evening, got a substantial head start on the rest of the racers.
Several of the teams on the "Race Across the World" took Flixbus, which now owns the US "Megabus" brand and which markets the largest and best-known network of European long-distance buses, mainly on overnight schedules. But there were better options even than that.
Other less widely-known operators cater primarily to ethnic, immigrant, and "guest worker" niche markets. These services are largely invisible to tourists. Often they leave from immigrant and "ethnic" neighborhoods rather than from downtown terminals, and their Web sites may not be in English. Travel agencies and sometimes other shops in such neighborhoods often sell tickets on buses like this as an alternative to airline tickets. On the positive side of the ledger, travelling on a bus like this is a chance for immersion in a community that might otherwise be invisible, inaccessible, or simply overlooked by tourists.
For what it's worth, these European buses have their North American counterpart in the direct buses, little noticed by most gringos, that operate between cities in Mexico and Mexican-American communities in places in the US as far north as Chicago.
One Bulgarian company (with its timetable and online ticket sales only in Bulgarian) offers direct buses from London to Sofia, the European Union capital city furthest to the southeast. That route would have enabled the racers to get to Delphi, via Sofia and Thessaloniki, more cheaply, with fewer transfers, and more than 24 hours faster than any of them did.
If you have a chance to watch "Race Across the World", let me know in the comments what you think, and what travel lessons you learned.
Thursday, 14 March 2019
What's wrong with automated facial recognition in airports?
I'm quoted at length in an investigative report by Davey Alba published this week by Buzzfeed News on the US government's use of automated facial recognition to track and control air travellers, in collaboration with airlines and airports that will operate the cameras and share the data for their own commercial purposes.
As I say in the pull quote at the top of the article, "This is opening the door to an extraordinarily more intrusive and granular level of government control."
For Hasbrouck, the big takeaway is that the broad surveillance of people in airports amounts to a kind of "individualized control of citizenry" -- not unlike what's already happening with the social credit scoring system in China. "There are already people who aren't allowed on, say, a high-speed train because their social credit scores are too low," he said, pointing out that China's program is significantly based in "identifying individual people and tracking their movements in public spaces though automated facial recognition."
"This is opening the door to an extraordinarily more intrusive and granular level of government control, starting with where we can go and our ability to move freely about the country," Hasbrouck said. "And then potentially, once the system is proved out in that way, it can literally extend to a vast number of controls in other parts of our lives."
Sunday, 24 February 2019
Federal court declares current military draft registration requirement unconstitutional
A Federal District Court judge issued a declaratory judgement on Friday, 22 February 2019, that the current requirement for men, but not women, to register with the Selective Service System for a possible military draft is unconstitutional.
How did this happen? What did the Court say? Is this a surprise? What does this decision mean? What will happen next? What should happen next?
I've accepted an invitation to testify as an expert witness before the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) on April 25th at a formal hearing on *Should Selective Service registration be required of all Americans", i.e. should it be extended to young women as well as young men. This hearing is likely to include substantial discussion of this decision and its implications.
For now, here are some initial answers to questions you may have about Friday's decision:Continue reading "Federal court declares current military draft registration requirement unconstitutional"