The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Delhi residency, day -2

Apparently it gets foggy in Delhi. My four-hour connection at Heathrow unexpectedly turned into a 13-hour connection, so I took my sleep-deprived self out of the airport for a while. Yep, definitely not Delhi:

And when in London, why not have a traditional breakfast?

It was as good as it looked.

Only one problem: my coat was in my checked bag, somewhere in the bowels of the airport. No problem: I now own a passably warm Reebok starter jacket, bought on sale for £22.

It's 3pm now, and my flight is rumored to start boarding at 7 for an 8pm takeoff. That puts me in Delhi by 9:30am local time. I hope to regain consciousness before classes start Saturday morning.

Update: It turns out, some of my classmates got diverted to Mumbai and had to spend almost 24 hours there. More details later.

Ach, noo to the wee beastie!

The United States will shortly lift its 21-year ban on Scotland's national fruit, the haggis:

The "great chieftan o' the puddin-race" was one of earliest casualties of the BSE crisis of the 1980s-90s, banned on health grounds by the US authorities in 1989 because they feared its main ingredient ‑ minced sheep offal ‑ could prove lethal.

Some refined foodies might insist it always has been and always will be: in the words of Robert Burns, in his Ode to a Haggis, looking "down wi' sneering, scornfu' view on sic a dinner". But now, as millions of Scots around the world prepare to celebrate Burns's legacy tonight with an elaborate, whisky-fuelled pageant to a boiled bag of sheep innards, oatmeal, suet and pepper, its reputation has been restored, on health grounds at least.

... Nearly £9m worth were sold in the UK alone last year, the 250th anniversary of Burns' birth, up by 19% on 2008. Richard Lochhead, the Scottish environment secretary, was delighted. "I am greatly encouraged to hear that the US authorities are planning a review of the unfair ban on haggis imports," he said. "We believe that reversing the ban would deliver a vote of confidence in Scottish producers, and allow American consumers to sample our world-renowned national dish."

In other news, the Boeing 747 turns 40 this week, and the Economist has a link to its original story from 1970:

Apart from the very first flight of all, for which around 2,000 people applied for seats, and which would have taken off with a full load of 362 seats (the replacement aircraft that eventually took off to cheers some time after 2 a.m. the following morning was still as full as makes no difference), bookings for 747 flights have been relatively slow coming in. The well-publicised troubles with deliveries, air-worthiness certificates and, most recently, engines, may have something to do with it, but so also has a certain timidity about embarking in a vehicle that most resembles a small flying cinema.

Like cinemas, some seats are better than others. First class apart, with its lounges and spiral staircases, the premium seats are probably the block that runs two abreast down one side of the aircraft, but not those too near the tail, which has a tendency to swish about, nor the extreme front nor behind the engines, where the noise level is above average. Least attractive are the three abreast seats along the opposite wall. The large block of four seats in the centre, with an aisle on either side, turns out to be more comfortable and less cramped than it looks; big men packed four abreast passed an uncomplaining night mainly because the seats themselves are larger than average.

I sincerely hope the 747 I'm flying on tomorrow morning is somewhat newer.

United, others roll back fare hikes

After American Airlines raised fares last week, all the other majors followed—for about three days. Delta bolted first, and yesterday United and American caved:

The increase, which was from $6 to $16 round-trip, was initiated last week by AMR Corp's American Airlines and later matched by rivals, including Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines, said Farecompare Chief Executive Rick Seaney.

The airline industry has been groping for pricing power after demand for business travel sagged during the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009.

Seaney said Delta was the first to retreat from the hike, followed by American, Continental and UAL Corp.s United Airlines.

The price rise evidently reduced the number of seats bought past the point where it made sense. That's great for travelers in the short term, but in the long term, all the majors have serious financial problems. Low prices don't help much.

Still, American went ahead and released its weekly Net Sa'aver fares, including $259 Chicago to London, $323 to Brussels, and only $70 to Toronto (each way).

The Toronto route is on sale most likely because people (a) may not want a long weekend on the north shore of Lake Ontario in the middle of winter; and (b) the airline, at the TSA's insistence, has added severe restrictions on carry-on luggage to and from Canada. And that $70 fare? A round-trip with taxes is actually $205, which isn't bad, but it's not exactly a give-away.

Unusually nerve-wracking travel

I travel a lot, both in the U.S. and overseas. Last year I flew about 93,000 km, including three trips to the U.K., one to Ukraine, one to Dubai, and another dozen in the U.S. So I'm pretty sanguine about travel in general, and thanks to the American A'Advantage program, I get a few perks along the way that make it even easier.

Tomorrow, though, I'm going to India for the first time. This has given me a kind of pre-travel jitters I don't ordinarily experience.

First, most obviously, it's the farthest I've ever gone—12,000 km over the pole or 13,000 km through London—requiring 18 hours on airplanes and 5 at Heathrow.

Second, I've never traveled anywhere requiring vaccinations and doxycycline, where an errant mosquito can put you in the hospital for a month.

Third, I've never had to get a visa before arriving. Really, we Americans take that for granted, as we can travel visa-free to about 180 countries. India, it turns out, is one of the few that requires us to get one ahead of time. So do China and Russia, where I'm going in April and July, respectively. (Good thing I got a fat passport last time.)

I did learn an important lesson traveling for the first two terms, so I'll have probably 10 kg less luggage this trip. (I did not learn the lesson about having a long layover at Heathrow between long flights, though. I blame British Airways for that.)

So, I've got my passport, my visa, some cash, the afore-mentioned anti-malarials, a feathery 4 kg of books, one suit, a few changes of clothes, and a fully-loaded Kindle (including one of my course books). Now all I have to do is finish everything I have due this week within the next 22 hours and I'm good to go. Oh, and sleep. Some time between now and Saturday, I should do that too.

I hope.

Airline, or airline-light?

When I last flew from Raleigh to O'Hare, I took an American Eagle flight. Today I took a full-blooded American Airlines flight. AMR owns both airlines, and they both operate out of the same concourse (and the same gates sometimes) at both airports.

Heavens, but the two airlines have differences.

First, most obviously, American Eagle doesn't fly anything larger than the 70-seat Bombardier CRJ-700, while American doesn't fly anything smaller than the 140-seat Boeing MD-80 (which they are phasing out in favor of their newer Boeing 737-800 planes. This makes sense, as Eagle flies short routes to small cities and American flies all over the world.

Second, less obviously, American has a fleet of baggage trucks at O'Hare, while American Eagle apparently has one rickety bamboo cart pulled by a 20-year-old mule. Evidence? The last four times I flew in on Eagle, I waited 40 to 45 minutes for my checked bag. Today, flying in on American, in the 12 minutes it took to walk from the gate[1] to the baggage claim, my bag had gotten to the carousel.

Seriously, Eagle? It's time to retire Francis and combine baggage teams with your parent airline.

[1] K19, the farthest gate possible in American's terminal, a gate so far from baggage claim they have Sherpas to guide passengers, and still two AUs closer than the C-concourse is from United's baggage claim on the other side of the airport.

About that Israeli airport security

I mentioned a few days ago that security at Israel's Ben Gurion airport seems to be both stronger and more convenient than U.S. airport security. Bruce Schneier reminds us about the problem:

[N]o matter how safe or how wonderful the flying experience on El Al, it is TINY airline by U.S. standards, with only 38 aircraft, 46 destinations, and fewer than two million passengers in 2008. ... In 2008, Ben Gurion served 11.1 million international passengers and 470,000 domestic passengers, roughly comparable to the 10 million total served at Sacramento.... Amsterdam served 47.4 million total, and Detroit served 35.1 million total in 2008.

By American standards, in terms of passengers served, Ben Gurion is a busy regional airport.

Simply put, the Israeli airport security model does not scale. Period.

The question I have is: why can't we have a rational debate about the costs of security?

Better security at airports? Look at Israel

Not only does Ben Gurion Airport have, by every measure, more effective security than at U.S. airports, but they move passengers through more quickly, too:

Despite facing dozens of potential threats each day, the security set-up at Israel's largest hub, Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, has not been breached since 2002, when a passenger mistakenly carried a handgun onto a flight. How do they manage that?

The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from?

"Two benign questions. The questions aren't important. The way people act when they answer them is," [Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy] said.

Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of "distress" — behavioural profiling. Sela rejects the argument that profiling is discriminatory.

In other words, more emphasis on people, less on technology. Will body scanners protect us against the next idiot who tries to blow up an airplane? Maybe; but watching people is probably more effective. Says Sela:

"First, [Israeli security is] fast — there's almost no line. That's because they're not looking for liquids, they're not looking at your shoes. They're not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you," said Sela. "Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes ... and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys."

That's the process — six layers, four hard, two soft. The goal at Ben-Gurion is to move fliers from the parking lot to the airport lounge in a maximum of 25 minutes.

Instead, we're investing in body scanners, which have created a completely different kind of idiocy:

We're willing to ethnically profile, do all sorts extra-judicial surveillance, maintain massive databases of hundreds of thousands of people who have some vague relationship to extremism, torture captives, condemn people to hours unable to go the bathroom on planes, even launch various foreign military adventures, but when it comes to submitting to a quick scan that might show a vague outline of boobs or penises (almost certainly no more than is exposed in most bathing suits), that's a bridge too far.

Something about that doesn't compute to me. And what I like about this is that there's no clear partisan division on this one. Everyone seems to agree. It just tells me that at some level we're not really serious about this.

No, we're not really serious about this. It's theater. And it will continue until enough people care more about security than silliness.

Once more into the air dear friends, once more

I'm leaving this:

For this:

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN CHICAGO HAS ISSUED A WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY FOR SNOW...WHICH IS IN EFFECT UNTIL 9 PM CST THIS EVENING.

At least I'll get there earlier than planned. I tried to get on the 11:30, but because the 7:30 had left at 9:30, and the 9:45 was delayed, they put me on the 9:45 which actually leaves (we hope) at 11. So instead of 7 hours at home before traveling again tomorrow, I get 9. I hope.

Update: Well, the 9:45 actually now leaves at 1pm, in theory, leaving me almost exactly no better off than the original plan. We'll see.

Dodging snowstorms

You know the truly fun part about traveling through O'Hare five times in one week in December? Not knowing when that will happen:

Delta [says] it is about to issue a weather bulletin allow passengers in 10 states to change tickets without penalty starting today through Dec. 27th. Those states are Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and North and South Dakota. They are encouraging folks to try to change travel plans to get out ahead of any storms if possible. Delta has hubs in Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

No one has started pre-canceling any flights yet – but stay tuned. That may happen tomorrow.

At least, if either of my next two flights gets[1] delayed, I'll be stuck in one of my two favorite cities in North America. Sigh.

[1] Note to the grammar police (you know who you are): "either...gets" is correct because "either" is a singular pronoun.

'Tis the season to be flying

Once again in Reagan National Airport, our hero pauses to reflect on the great pile of snow that landed on the city three days earlier. I have to say, it really is pretty:

Another view, around back:

We even got delayed for 15 minutes by a motorcade: not the President's, the Vice-President's. Still, I feel like I've had the full D.C. experience.

Forty minutes until boarding...then I get to pass through O'Hare for the third time in five days.