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 it 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.

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 (5)

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 (a 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 by this measure as well, 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 (0)

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)

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 7

Almaty (Qazakstan) - Hyderabad, Telangana (India)

Visiting Friends and Relatives:
Pandemic and Post-Pandemic Travel Trends and Predictions

More than a million people a day went through TSA checkpoints in the run-up to Thanksgiving. This is less than half the daily number last year, but more than ten times that in April of this year. More people in the USA are travelling by air in the USA today than on any other day since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is typically the busiest day for air travel in the USA, so perhaps this should be no surprise. But what does it tell us about travel -- and about what to expect for pandemic and post-pandemic travel in the months and years ahead -- that Thanksgiving travel is down by so much less than travel at other times during the pandemic to date?

The fundamental lesson is that the strongest motivation for travel, for people who aren't refugees or migrants, is the desire to visit friends and relatives. Wars, natural disasters, and other exigencies that drive migration provide more even greater compulsion for travel. But while migrants sometimes move repeatedly in search of a safe haven, migration can be a one-off event. People travel to visit friends and relatives, if they can, repeatedly throughout their lives.

It should be no surprise that ties of friendship and family are what motivate us most to travel, even to take risks (or to impose risks by our travel on other people such as service workers) to travel in a time of pandemic.

But this is a surprise to a travel industry that has systematically averted its attention from travel to visit friends and relatives ("VFR travel" in industry and scholarly parlance).

As I learned when I was trying to find statistics on travel patterns for my Practical Nomad books and for, the travel industry conceptualizes the motives for travel as being either "business" or "leisure". VFR travel is either bundled into leisure travel (as a presumptively insignificant subcategory), or into a residual category of (presumptively insignificant) "other" motives for travel.

Hotels take for granted that VFR travellers are staying with friends and relatives, and therefore not in the market for hotels. Car rental companies take for granted that VFR travellers are travelling in their own cars, and therefore not in the market for rental cars. Airlines take for granted (I've seen and heard this time and time again, especially in off-the-record informal conversations) that VFR travellers are low-revenue bottom-feeders who can be attracted by sufficiently low fares to seats that would otherwise go empty, but who aren't willing to pay enough to be worth targetting as a market, or to justify flights to VFR destinations unless there was also enough high-paying business or vacations-for-rich-people traffic to fill the premium, business, and/or first-class sections at the front of the plane. I've seen the same generally highly-regarded international airline offer conspicuously worse service on a flight to a primarily VFR destination than the same airline provided on a flight to an otherwise-similar destination with more business and upscale-leisure traffic.

None of these assumptions are entirely true, but they have rarely been questioned. Those few advocates for VFR travellers and tourism and travel researchers who have tried to call attention to VFR travel have generally been ignored. A special issue of the Journal of Tourism Studies on VFR travel in 1990 opened with an essay on the question, "VFR tourism: Is it underestimated?" Revisiting the question twenty years later, an article in the journal Tourism Management concluded, "VFR Travel: It is underestimated." And yet another special issue on VFR travel in 2017, this time in the International Journal of Tourism Research, opened with an editorial, "VFR Travel: Is It Still Underestimated?" The answer, until the pandemic, has been, "Yes, it still is."

During the current pandemic, travel companies that have heretofore turned up their noses at VFR travellers are finding, to both their surprise and their confusion, that they have no choice if they want to remain in business except to cater to VFR travellers. VFR travellers are the only people, or most of the people, who are still sufficiently motivated to travel in spite of the risks to themselves and others.

The bottom has fallen out of business travel. Meetings and conventions have been cancelled. Business, occupational, and on-the-job training (except some necessarily hands-on training) is being provided remotely, just like all other education. Travelling salespeople are mostly not travelling, but selling remotely. Videoconferencing has existed for some years, but inertia and the need to learn how to use new tools has been a barrier to widespread adoption. Once business people are used to it, they are finding that it's a sufficient replacement for face-to-face meetings that in many cases (not all, but many) they will no longer be able to justify the additional time or money required for travel to face-to-face meetings, even after the pandemic.

Of course some people -- including among others many hotel, restaurant, transportation, and agricultural workers -- have no choice but to go wherever their jobs require. But except under economic duress, people are much more willing to take risks, and to impose risks on others, to be with friends and family than for a paycheck. That's the clear evidence of the current wave of Thanksgiving travel in the US, or of the similar, but much larger, annual wave of Lunar New Year travel that drove the initial spread of COVID-19 in China:

The annual 'migration' of people from major cities in China at the Lunar New Year numbers in the hundreds of millions, and it is almost all VFR-motivated. Although this catches international media attention, mostly showing overcrowded railway stations and trains, there is never a mention of the VFR travel motivation that causes the mass urban exodus (and return journey).... [T]his is more proof of the lack of sufficient status being afforded to VFR travel, with Chinese scholars tending to eschew these travellers in favour of more 'high-profile' tourists who are assumed to have more economic impact.

As for recreational travel, some rich people are still taking vacation trips. But overall, far fewer people are travelling on their holidays other than to visit friends and family, and to fewer types of destinations. Isolated and exclusive high-end resorts, holiday rentals, individual or small-group outdoor activities, and driving-distance destinations are holding up better than theme parks, city breaks, flying-distance destinations (especially long-haul destinations), or cruises, for example.

Neither business nor leisure travel has disappeared during the pandemic. The statistics are stark, however, and it has become apparent to businesses that provide all manner of services to travellers that (1) most of those still travelling during the pandemic are VFR travellers, and (2) some other categories of travel, particularly business travel (other than conventions, which may return eventually), will "recover" much more slowly after the pandemic, and may never regain their previous levels.

What will this mean for travellers like you and me?

Airlines have already parked many planes or cancelled leases to cut costs. (Many airliners are mortgaged, with title held by banks or leasing companies rather than airlines.) For those planes still flying, routes, sizes of planes, and frequencies of service have been modified to focus on routes dominated by VFR travel first, leisure travel a distant second, and business travel (especially convention travel) an even more distant third. This is a reversal of airlines' pre-pandemic priorities for deploying capacity.

Unfortunately for those who love to travel, and especially for would-be long-haul travellers, airfares after the pandemic are likely to be substantially higher than they were before the pandemic. Historically, airlines have structured fares in such a way that business travelers and a small number of rich leisure travellers (who airlines could persuade to pay for more than mere transportation) have subsidized VFR travellers and budget-conscious leisure travellers. With airlines having lost some of their highest-paying traffic, current airfares would be unsustainable even if planes filled up again with low-revenue VFR and budget leisure travellers. Airlines won't keep operating at a loss forever. Regardless of how much money governments give to airline owners, airlines will eventually raise fares and reduce capacity to match the number of people willing to pay higher fares. The only real question about post-pandemic airfares is how much higher than pre-pandemic fares they will be, as a result of reduced high-paying business travel.

If there's a silver lining in post-pandemic travel services and prices, it's likely to be in hotels. Hotel rates are likely to be lower, and more hotels will offer services tailored for VFR and budget leisure travellers.

These changes are happening already, as hotel owners and managers, stuck with a glut of hotels, compete for the business of fewer people who are still on the road: VFR travellers and some people whose work still requires travel, such as field service technicians, transient construction and agriculture workers, workers in the oil and gas and some other industries in locations far from their homes, etc.

These hotel price and service trends will accelerate, though, as the pandemic continues and if business travel doesn't recover after the pandemic (which it won't). As I've discussed before, hard times for hoteliers are good times for budget travellers. The key event driving change will be a massive wave of bankruptcies of hotel owners, which has already begun.

Hotel owners, like airlines, are lobbying for billions of dollars in bailouts from the US government. Travellers, the public at large, and Congress should just say no.

There's no reason for the government to bail out investors who bought hotels, or banks who loaned them money. They gambled, and they lost. It's especially ironic that the companies lobbying for hotel-owner bailouts include owners of casino hotels, whose wealth has been built on profiting from other people's bad bets, but who are unwilling to accept the consequences of their own bad investment bets and their decision to take profits rather than retaining sufficient reserves to tide them over the ups and downs of the travel business.

Hotel owners will try to extort travel-lovers to support bailouts by threatening that, "If the government doesn't bail us out, we'll go out of business." So what if they do? Hotels don't close just because their owners go bankrupt. They are sold to new owners at bankruptcy or foreclosure auctions. Having incurred lower acquisition costs, and thus having lower debt-service costs, those new owners can afford to operate the same hotels, with the same level of service, profitably, with lower room rates. Hotel-owner bankruptcies and hotel foreclosures are a bad thing for hotel investors and banks and a good thing for travellers, especially budget travellers.

Some former hotels will be repurposed as homeless shelters, residential housing, and/or temporarily during the pandemic as quarantine/isolation facilities. If you test positive or are exposed to COVID-19, and don't have space in your home to isolate yourself from family or roommates, where can you go? Quarantine and isolation facilities like this are an important part of the pandemic response in some other countries, but completely missing in the US. But these changes in how hotel building are used could occur independently of who owns the hotel, whether they go bankrupt, or whether a lender forecloses and sells off the hotel.

Hotel owners will also threaten, also falsely, that hotel-owner bankruptcies or hotel foreclosures will result in a loss of jobs. But there's no necessary relationship between how many people will be employed at the property and who owns it. Current owners are already laying off hotel workers and cutting their wages. Current owners may even be under more financial pressure to extract givebacks from workers than new owners who have lower debt-service costs. Hotels may change to business models which require less staff, such as less-than-daily room cleaning, but that's completely independent of ownership, bankruptcy, or foreclosure.

Bankruptcy lawyers and investment advisors are already gearing up for hotel bankruptcies and foreclosures. As happened on a much smaller scale after the recession of 2007-2008, there will be Meltdown Opportunities for Hotel Buyers in hotel "restructuring" and acquisition out of bankruptcy.

Even before the pandemic, those few analysts thinking about VFR travel had already recognized the special role it could play, as the sector of tourism least negatively affected and quickest to recover, in economic recovery from tourism crises and disasters. The more attention hotel owners and managers and prospective buyers of bankrupt hotels pay to VFR travellers as the only (or at least the largest) remaining game in town, the more services will be added or adjusted to meet our needs. Would you rather have room service available at higher-than-restaurant prices, and a minibar full of overpriced snacks? Or a refrigerator you can stock yourself, and a microwave, or maybe even a kitchenette? I know what I want.

I assume that there are entrepreneurs already drawing up business plans for new hotel service concepts and renovations, to be executed when they can buy hotels at the bottom of the price curve, at fire-sale bankruptcy liquidation or foreclosure auctions. Many, many hotels will be up for sale, so there will be plenty of opportunities to try out new ideas with relatively low up-front costs.

Some of those ideas will be bad, some will be merely pointless, and some will be to others' tastes but not mine. I've stayed in some strange "concept" hotels, some of them concept-built but many renovated from existing (often failed) hotels. I expect that some of these new concepts will be good, however, especially since they are less likely than current hotel concepts to target high-paying corporate travellers and their priorities for facilities, features, and services.

How are hotels responding to the pandemic, and what new concepts are being introduced, that might make for hotels more to your taste, even after the pandemic? What would you like to see, or what are you seeing if you have travelled recently?

Link | Posted by Edward, 25 November 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (4)

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 6

Paris (France) - Berlin (Germany) - Almaty (Qazaqstan)

The first challenge for the contestants on this double episode of The Amazing Race, starting out from Paris after midnight, was to figure out the fastest way to get to Berlin, by train, in the middle of the night.

Given the quality of trains and the density of high-speed rail networks throughout Europe but especially in France and Germany, you might expect that the capitals and largest cities of France and Germany would be linked by frequent, fast, direct trains. But even in the daytime, there are no through trains from Paris to Berlin. There are connections between the French and German rail systems via Brussels-Liège-Aachen, Saarbrücken-Mannheim, or Strasbourg. All of these routes between Paris and Berlin require at least one change of trains, and many including some of those with the shortest total journey times involve two or more changes.

Rail development underwritten by national governments has naturally been focused on domestic routes. There are surprisingly few through international trains in Europe, and even fewer high-speed ones.

What about night trains? With the minor exception of gamblers wanting to maximize their time at the tables in Las Vegas, few people want to depart (and even fewer want to arrive) anywhere in the middle of the night. But even if there were no trains originating from Paris after midnight, might there have been a train coming through from e.g. Madrid to Germany that stopped in Paris in the middle of the night?

In the USA, by way of comparative example, there is little demand for trains leaving even a city as big as New York in the middle of the night. But because the overnight trains between Boston and Washington make intermediate stops in New York City, there are 2:00 a.m. departures from New York in both directions -- the only Amtrak departures from New York between midnight and 5 a.m.

Very few trains pass through Paris at any hour, however. Most trains serving the French capital terminate at a ring of stations serving destinations in different directions: the Gare du Nord, Gare de l'Est, Gare de Lyon (South), and so forth. Moreover, there are no through trains from Madrid even as far as Paris, much less to points further north or east, and no night trains from Paris to Germany.

Sadly, the growth of national high-speed rail networks and low-fare European regional airlines has been accompanied by the near-total elimination of European overnight trains. Night trains were most popular for journeys too long to complete in a day. As high-speed trains reduced journey times, railways found that most people prefer to schedule shorter train journeys during the day, not at night, and take planes -- if they can afford it -- for any journey too long to complete in a day by train. France and Germany both eliminated all overnight domestic trains, such as those that formerly connected Paris to the French Riviera, once they had build up comprehensive national high-speed rail systems capable of getting travellers anywhere within each of their respective countries in less than a day.

The few remaining overnight trains serving Germany were through trains to and from Austria operated by the Austrian national railway, ÖBB, which had been left as the largest remaining operator of overnight passenger night trains in Europe, under the "Nightjet" brand. (I was on one of their trains a few years ago from Amsterdam via Germany to Vienna, sharing a quite comfortable compartment with two Chinese college students on a hasty grand tour of Europe during their winter holidays from a university in the Netherlands.)

The good news -- and this really is good news for those who will be travelling after the current pandemic -- is that, while the renversement didn't happen in time to benefit the contestants in this season of The Amazing Race filmed in 2018, there is now solid and growing consensus and political and financial commitment by European governments to the restoration of better-integrated pan-European passenger rail services including a renewed transcontinental network of overnight sleeping-car trains.

Even before the pandemic, flight shaming about the effect of air travel on global warming was already ratcheting up pressure on European politicians for better and more integrated international rail services for journeys across and throughout more of Europe, to replace medium-distance intra-European flights. Train travellers can thank Greta Thunberg and the Green Parties. Fear of flying during the pandemic (although it's not clear when or if taking a train is more or less dangerous than flying) and a desire by those who are travelling by train for private compartments have stepped up the pressure for longer-distance and overnight passenger trains.

European national governments and the European Union have responded with an array of policy and investment initiatives. Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and hopes to take a central road in European rail systems, has put forward a strategy proposal for a network of international high-speed rail corridors across Europe, and has gotten 24 European countries to endorse a call for development of better passenger rail services as part of the European Green Deal.

Meanwhile, Austria -- long a cultural, political, and transportation intermediary between Eastern and Western (and Northern and Southern) Europe -- isn't ready to abandon its current leading role as a provider of trans-European sleeping-car services. ÖBB has just spent half a billion Euros on more new sleeping cars to expand its night-train network, including planned services as far west as Paris. ÖBB's plans including a future Paris-Berlin night train, although perhaps not until 2028. Some service frequencies may be cut back temporarily during the pandemic, but the more important positive consequences of the decisions being made now, under the conscientizing influence of the pandemic, will be felt later, and be more lasting.

In addition to investments in rails, signalling systems, and rolling stock, the German proposal includes much-needed EU-level initiatives to promote coordination of cross-border schedules, connections, reservations, and through ticketing -- projects ideally suited to EU agendas for harmonization and and integration of the "internal market".

Some of this is already incorporated, at least aspirationally, in EU passenger rail regulations approved last month. The new rules standardize passenger rights, encourage through interline booking and ticketing, and require space to be provided for bicycles on all new or renovated passenger rail cars. The effects of this last change won't be fully felt for years, but it will gradually lower the barriers posed by cars designed without bike spaces to using trains as your "sag wagon" and to other sorts of intermodal bicycle/train journeys within Europe.

It's ironic, of course, that this is being done now in order to make train travel a better alternative to air travel. Interline ticketing and other provisions for through passenger transport across borders (in Europe) and between private companies (in the USA) were developed first, in the 19th century, for rail travel. These interoperability schemes and standards were essential to transcontinental rail travel across either the USA or Europe. There has never been a through passenger train across the US. Even today on Amtrak, a cross-country journey requires a change of trains in Chicago or New Orleans, with the eastern and western portions of the journey operated over the tracks of different railroads. And of course travel across Europe required cars to to be be carried across national borders and shunted between trains operated by different national railways. Passengers on the classic Wagon-Lits sleeping cars and some other through services didn't have to disembark or change cars en route, but through cars had to be switched from one train to another, and customs inspectors came through the cars to carry out border formalities en route.

For the next leg of their journey, the contestants on The Amazing Race 32 had to fly from Berlin to Almaty, Qazaqstan (formerly Kazakhstan). The Almaty airport, IATA code ALA, is still the same one my Aeroflot flight landed at in 1992, in the midst of the transition to Qazak independence. Like a Paris-Berlin train, a Berlin-Almaty flight seems a natural -- but doesn't exist. It looked like the racers all connected through Frankfurt, although Istanbul, Moscow, or Vienna would also have been possibilities with a single change of planes. (Austrian Airlines isn't a large airline and has few long-haul flights, but it was the first "Western" airline to start flying to Qazaqstan after that country's independence. An acquaintance of mine was the first Austrian Airlines station manager in Almaty in the early 1990s.)

Why would anyone expect there to be a direct flight between Berlin and Almaty? After World War II, a sizeable number of ethnic German "displaced persons" including some former POWs captured by Soviet forces were relocated to the the steppes of Qazaqstan as part of the Stalinist "virgin lands" program. During the Soviet period, they were able to maintain closer ties with relatives in East Germany than with those across the Iron Curtain in West Germany. After independence, Qazaqstan was initially eager to attract foreign investment, and Germans with family ties to Qazaqstan were more willing to consider joint ventures with Qazak partners than most other Europeans. From the Qazak point of view at that time, Germans were less hated or feared than the Russians whose colonial rule of Central Asia was being thrown off. The first flight to Western Europe by Air Kazakhstan -- formerly the Kazakhstan operating division of Aeroflot -- was to Frankfurt.

But why to Frankfurt, and not Berlin? Berlin is by far the larger city, and the capital. And as noted above, more of the Germans with closer ties to relatives in Qazakstan were in the former East Germany, closer to Berlin than Frankfurt.

Frankfurt, however, was and is the larger air hub. Flights from Almaty to Frankfurt offered connections to anywhere in the Western world, which a flight to Berlin wouldn't have done in 1992 and still wouldn't today. During the Cold War, while NATO and the US helped underwrite steady expansion of the Frankfurt airport, flights to the West Berlin airport (Tegel, TXL) were strictly limited, and flights from the East Berlin airport (Schönefeld, SXF) served mainly other friendly socialist countries although there were direct flights on Interflug (the East German national airline) and other airlines from SXF to places as far west as Havana, Cuba (HAV) and as far east as Pyongyang, North Korea (FNJ). Frankfurt retained its status as the de facto German national air gateway for decades after German reunification, despite the German government's continual efforts to encourage more direct international flights to and from Berlin.

The centerpiece of these efforts was the construction of a new airport to replace SXF, whose no-frills ex-DDR facilities had been used mainly, after reunification, by no-frills low-fare airlines including as the hub for Air Berlin. (Air Berlin was one of the better low-fare airlines, in my experience including at SXF, but it has since gone bankrupt and been liquidated.)

Many major international airlines had plans to start new long-haul flights to Berlin as soon as the new airport opened. In the meantime, close-in TXL was overwhelmingly overcrowded, with neither gates nor landing slots available for new routes. The last time I flew out of TXL, the waiting area at the "gate" for my Air Canada flight to Toronto was in a tent-like temporary structure. And no airline wanted to invest in upgrading facilities at SXF that would have to be abandoned with the switch to the new airport. As long as a new and improved airport was supposedly "just around the corner", plans for almost all new flights to and from any Berlin airport were on hold.

But the opening of the new "Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport" (BER) was delayed, again and again, by a series of scandals and technical fiascos that shocked and embarassed all of Germany. When BER handled its first flights last month, it was almost a decade behind the original schedule and almost US$5 billion (4 billion Euros) over budget. At that, the opening was only possible because the pandemic has so reduced traffic that only one of the three terminals needed to be made ready for operation, and at much less than its planned capacity.

The Amazing Race appears to have had the support of the government for filming this leg in Qazakstan. That cooperation may have come, as does filming in many countries, at an explicit or implicit price. Whether out of wisdom or necessity, the producers of this episode of "reality" television showed viewers almost nothing about the reality of contemporary Qazakstan.

The closest we got to a clue about Qazakstan today was the site of the finish line for this episode, "First Presidents's Park", a colonnaded monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nursultan Nazarbayev is one of those Central Asian politicians who managed the transition from Soviet rule to independence seamlessly (albeit with some behind-the-scenes power plays and street-level suppression of both Islamists and would-be democrats), changing the name on his office door from "First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic" to "President of Kazakhstan" and continuing to hold that position for almost thirty more years. The contestants on The Amazing Race visited a film studio best known for costume dramas set in the time of Genghis Khan. Part of the reality of post-Soviet Central Asia, unfortunately, is the extent to which post-independence politicians have tried to model their behavior and their public images on those of the historic Khans.

It didn't take long after Qazak independence before the oil money began flowing from a massive joint venture with the US company Chevron into Qazak sovereign wealth funds and Qazak kleptocrats' Swiss bank accounts. As that happened, Nazarbayev and his cronies became more and more focused on asserting their power and reimagining the nation on their own terms, and less and less concerned with currying favor with the "international community". Among the moves made to break with the legacy of Tsarist and then Soviet Russian domination was the construction of a new capital city on the steppes, essentially in the middle of nowhere, at a town known in Qazak as "Akmola" and in Russian as "Tselinograd". The city was renamed "Astana", although the airport code remained TSE. Twenty-five years later, the population of the new capital city has grown to more than a million people.

In 2017, Nazarbayev issued a Presidential decree (that's how he ruled) changing the official spelling of the country's name in the Latin alphabet from Kazakhstan to "Qazakstan". That's not as strange a spelling as it might seem: The "Q" in "Qazakstan" is pronounced with a "K" sound similar to that of the Arabic "Q" in Qatar or qat.

In 2019, Nazarbayev stepped down as President for unspecified reasons, although he retained several other official titles including "Leader of the Nation". To show his continued loyalty to Nazarbayev, his successor announced at his swearing-in as President that he was renaming the capital city yet again, this time in Nursultan Nazarbayev's honor, from Astana to "Nur-Sultan". Those few residents of the city who dared to hold a public protest of the name change, and at least one journalist who tried to report on the protest, were all immediately arrested, as were larger numbers who tried to protest the election held to confirm the Presidential succession. I've been unable to find any follow-up reports on what happened to those arrested -- cause for concern in light of the frequency of mistreatment of dissidents and prisoners in Qazakstan.

Changes of city names aren't that unusual, but the next step was unprecedented. In June 2020, just a year after the official name change of the city, the government of Qazakstan succeeded in getting IATA to change the official code for the existing airport from the already-archaic "TSE" to "NQZ" for "Nur-Sultan, Qazakstan". Once assigned, IATA airport codes normally remain fixed. The airport in St. Petersburg is still "LED", almost thirty years after all the Lenin statues came down in what used to be Leningrad. The airport in Mumbai is still "BOM" (Bombay), the airport in Chennai remains "MAA" (Madras), and so forth. I don't know of any IATA airport code that has been changed except when the airport had been so completely rebuilt that it could be designated as a new airport, even if it was on the same site (as with the change in Berlin from SXF to BER). Qazakstan somehow succeeded where other countries have failed. "NQZ" is now being programmed into airline reservation and ticketing systems and all their layers of user interfaces and APIs around the world.

There are flights on Air Astana (with Lufthansa codeshare flight numbers) between QZM and FRA -- but still not between anywhere in Qazakstan and any airport in Berlin. An eventual post-pandemic BER-Qazakstan flight seems likely, but it's unclear if it will be BER-QZM or BER-ALA.

Link | Posted by Edward, 18 November 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (2)

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 5

Asunción (Paraguay) - Roissy (France) - Chantilly (France) - Paris (France)

This week the key challenges for the cast of The Amazing Race 32 involved driving and navigating in and around Paris. Some teams had difficulty driving stick-shift cars, while others lost hours (six and a half hours (!) in the case of Victoria and Michelle, who finished last and were eliminated) trying to find the sites of their tasks and checkpoints.

While there were differences between the cast members in how well they coped, these were generational issues, not personal failings.

All of the contestants still in the race are between 29 and 39 years old: "millenials". Their troubles with manual-transmission cars and navigation without a smartphone or GPS are indicative of generational changes -- even since the first season of The Amazing Race in 2001 -- in what travel skills most people are taught.

Stick-shift cars: Until the 1970s, the standard American car or light truck had a three-speed manual shifter on the steering column. Not everyone knew how to drive a car with a four-speed, floor-mounted stick shift. Stick shifts were found mainly on sport cars, Volkswagens, and some other imported cars. "Four on the floor" was considered exotic compared to "three on the tree", not compared to an automatic transmission.

By 1980, most new cars sold in the USA had automatic transmissions, and steering-column manual shifters had disappeared from all but antique cars, but a car that had to be shifted manually was still described as having a "standard" transmission.

Today, less than one new car or light truck in 40 sold in the USA has a manual transmission. Manual transmissions used to be cheaper, more reliable, and more fuel efficient, but none of those are true any more. Hybrid drive trains have accelerated the development of better automatic transmissions for all motor vehicles, and the demise of the manual transmissions.

The ability to drive a stick-shift vehicle varies by age, with a small majority of older drivers in the USA claiming to know how to drive a stick-shift car, but only 18 percent of millenials and younger drivers claiming stick-shift competence, as of 2016.

It may be tempting for older people to sneer at millenials and younger drivers who don't know how to use a clutch, but there is little or no reason or need for new drivers today in the USA to learn how to drive a stick-shift car unless they plan to travel abroad. The only excuse one automotive journalist could come up with recently for learning to drive a car with a manual transmission was, "I might get cast on The Amazing Race someday."

The situation in the rest of the world is quite different from that in the USA, and it is still a good idea to learn to drive a stick-shift car if you might be renting cars in other countries. Almost half of all new cars and light trucks sold in the world today have manual transmissions, including more than half of those sold in the European Union. While those percentages are falling, the chances are that the least expensive and most readily available rental cars in many places will have manual transmissions. It's especially important to get comfortable driving a car with a stick shift if you plan to rent a car in a country where they drive on the opposite side of the road from what you are used to. You really don't want to (and for safety's sake probably shouldn't) try to learn to drive a stick shift and learn to drive on the opposite side of the road at the same time!

Some of the contestants on this season of "The Amazing Race" had tried to learn how to drive a stick shift, just for the race. They hadn't learned as well as they thought, though, and made mistakes under pressure. A tip for stick-shift learners: Focus first on what you need to do with your feet, not your hands. This may not be obvious to those who have never driven a manual-shift vehicle, but most of the skill in shifting manually is in the interplay of the clutch and accelerator pedals, not the movement of the shift lever. "Stalling out", the most common symptom of not knowing how to operate a manual transmission, is more often a symptom of mistakes in footwork on the clutch and accelerator pedals than of putting the hand shift lever in the wrong position -- although we saw both errors on this episode of "The Amazing Race".

Navigation without a GPS: Contestants on "The Amazing Race" have never been allowed to bring cellphones or GPS devices, and navigation has always been an issue. But smartphones with built-in GPS receivers and digital maps with global coverage didn't exist when The Amazing Race launched in 2001. The racers' skills at map reading varied, but navigation could still be equated with applying (paper) map reading skills.

No so today. GPS-equipped smartphones are ubiquitous, and it makes no sense to disparage people for using the best available tool for the task at hand, or for not knowing how to use a tool they've never needed before. That would be like complaining that people don't know how to build a fire, when they may never have needed to build a fire, and the only camping they have done is in places where fires aren't permitted. The only time they would need to build a fire is in an emergency. Yes, fire-starting is an important survival skill, as I'm sure some of my wilderness-travel friends will pipe up to remind us, if you are travelling in the back country. But it's not a skill that everyone needs to know, if that's not the sort of travel you ever expect to do.

A generation has grown up since the launch of the "The Amazing Race", many of whom have never needed to read a paper map. A widely-cited survey commissioned last year by the Ordnance Survey (the UK government mapping agency and publisher of topographic maps, analogous to the US Geological Survey) found that only 15% of millenials in the UK had ever tried to read or navigate by using a paper map. Older people, even if we have smartphones, are much more likely still to use paper maps, or at least to feel able to use them when necessary. The same survey found that the average person in the UK age 39 or older consults their mobile phone for navigation only once or twice a month.

I think paper maps are better for certain purposes than smartphones, GPS devices, or digital maps. Paper maps are better for travel planning, for finding destinations that we hadn't already known about or planned to visit, and for finding routes that might be interesting but aren't the fastest or most direct. But that's a different issue, or one for a different reality-TV series. GPS-equipped smartphones and digital maps are very good for the navigation task typically faced by contestants on The Amazing Race: finding the fastest route by car to a specific destination, especially in unfamiliar territory.

(Paper maps have proven to be critical for contestants on the excellent BBC reality-TV travel show Race Across the World, which I've mentioned before and which has now completed two seasons with a quite different format than "The Amazing Race". The contestants on Race Across the World have more leeway to pick their own routes.)

The shift to GPS and smartphone navigation in the everyday world has made their exclusion from "The Amazing Race", and the generational divide in skill at using paper maps, increasingly significant over the decades and seasons of "The Amazing Race". Experience using paper maps has become one of the non-obvious but important advantages of most older over most younger contestants on the reality-TV show.

You may think that none of this matters since, if you aren't a contestant on "The Amazing Race", you will always have your smartphone handy. But what if you don't have a cellphone signal, don't have roaming data access locally, haven't downloaded a digital map in advance, or your GPS doesn't have an up-to-date map or directs you in an infinite loop? What if your cellphone is lost, stolen, dropped and broken, or its battery fails? There are times when anyone may need to use some other mode of navigation. Whether or not you're in a race, you should be prepared.

Maps were important on this episode because the last task for the racers was at a venue that, despite being called a "museum", is little known to the public, and would be hard to find by asking random passers-by for directions. The Musée des Arts Forains is open only by advance reservation, as part of group tour, and is mainly used as a venue for private events. Even the official Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau describes it as "off the beaten track".

Victoria and Michelle, who finished last and were eliminated, made three mistakes from which we can learn:

  1. Although they probably had time while they were changing planes (some connected through São Paulo, others through Rio de Janeiro), they didn't buy a good map and/or guidebook to Paris. The maps and guidebooks available in the airports in Brazil would likely have been in Portuguese, but should still have been useful for navigation. If you know you won't be able to rely on a smartphone or GPS, get a map! Contestants on "The Amazing Race" have limited funds, but the best available maps should be a priority for their budgets.

  2. They were unable to pronounce the name of their place they were trying to get to well enough for locals to recognize what they were trying to say. They could have gotten past that by showing passers-by their written clue, and asking them to draw a map. But that would have required stopping and getting out of their car. Which brings us to what was probably their most significant error:

  3. Even when they had trouble finding their way, they were reluctant to park their car and get out to ask directions. People on the street will be more willing to help you if you get out of your car and sit down with them to talk, rather then yelling at them out the window of your car. When you ask for directions, you are making a request for a favor, not a demand. Most people will help you, if you are sufficiently polite and humble, but nobody is required to do so.
Link | Posted by Edward, 11 November 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1)

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 4

Manaus (Brazil) - Asunción (Paraguay)

The first task for the contestants on The Amazing Race 32 once they arrived in Asunción was as characteristically Paraguayan as possible: preparing "tereré". Tereré is a cold-brewed herb tea made primarily with "yerba mate" in a manner similar to the way mate is made in Argentina and Uruguay (as we've seen in previous seasons of The Amazing Race), but steeped with cold water rather than warm, and often with additional crushed herbs and sometimes fruit or fruit juice.

Tereré is as ubiquitous in Paraguay as mate is in Argentina and Uruguay. It's normal to see a person on the street, in a park, riding a bus, or walking in the countryside with a specially-made carrying case slung over their shoulder that's fitted to hold a thermos of water, a "bomba" (a special hollowed-out gourd, or other vessel for steeping the drink, for tereré traditionally made from a conical section of a cow's horn), a "matera" (a sipping straw, typically metal, with a strainer on the end to filter out the crushed herbs), and a container of crushed dried mate. Each pair of racers was given a tereré set like this, which they had to carry with them for the rest of the episode.

After that, the racers were given a choice between two tasks, both of which were the same as those assigned to the contestants the first time "The Amazing Race" visited Paraguay in Season 20. Each team had a choice between dancing with wine bottles balanced on their heads (a Paraguayan tradition even though the bottle dance best known in the US is the version that was created for "Fiddler on the Roof" and subsequently adopted as a new Jewish "tradition"), or stacking watermelons in a ten-high pyramid in a produce market.

These tasks made for entertaining television, at least the first time. But is the reason you go back to a place you have visited before, or that people you know have visited, to do the same things over again? Or to explore more or in more depth, meet new people, and do different things? Surely there are other things to do and other places to go in Paraguay.

If you are like me, you are spending some of the time during the current pandemic, when you aren't travelling, thinking about where you would like to go, if and when international travel again becomes safe enough to contemplate.

Which places you have visited before are you fantasizing about going back to again? Why? Is it about wanting to repeat peak experiences? Wanting to go further into those places, physically or metaphorically? Wanting to share those places with new or different travelling companions? Or wanting to learn about how those places have changed since your previous visit?

Your motives for travel may vary, but seeing how places change is one of my main reasons to travel. When we live in one place, we may know more about how it is changing, but we may not notice the changes if they occur gradually around us. When we return to a place we have visited before as a traveller, the differences between those experiential "snapshots" at different times, when our senses were heightened and our perceptual filters were down, are more likely to jump out at us.

What's changed in Paraguay since the last time The Amazing Race paid a visit in 2011? The economy of Paraguay, for better or worse, still depends in substantial part on smuggling, primarily to Brazil. (See the discussion of how this works in my articles and comments here and here.) During the current pandemic, this has created a dilemma for Paraguay similar to that faced by countries and places such as Hawaii economically dependent on tourism that have had to decide whether closing borders or restricting travel to protect against COVID-19 infection is worth the cost.

By closing its borders, Paraguay has achieved the lowest per-capita rates of COVID-19 infection and death in South America. And tourism was never a major industry in Paraguay. But closing the official border crossings, especially the Friendship Bridge between Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) and Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil), has driven smugglers to use more dangerous routes while drastically reducing income and employment in export-oriented Paraguayan businesses, legal and illegal. Meanwhile, a severe drought is affecting Paraguay's second-largest industry, agriculture, as well as the river transport that is critical for a landlocked country.

What sort of travel are you fantasizing about? Where do you want to go back to that you've been before? Why? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward, 4 November 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

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