Category Archives: Consumer Issues

If There Were No TSA …

Everyone seems to have a “security checkpoint story,” either something they experienced or an incident they observed. This has led to calls for the abolition of

the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), privitization of the airport security process and other “solutions” to preventing the use of an aircraft as a terrorist weapon, all of which approaches are intended to reduce the inconvenience and, occasionally, humiliation that occurs, especially when one is running late for a flight.

The problem may be getting worse. TSA announced a few weeks ago that it had finished rolling out enhanced screening of carry-on bags at airports across the country. https://bit.ly/2H3HMvR. The new process, according to TSA, requires travelers to:

place all personal electronics larger than a cell phone in bins for X-ray screening in standard lanes. In addition … TSA officers may instruct travelers to separate other items from carry-on bags such as foods, powders, and any materials that can clutter bags and obstruct clear images on the X-ray machine. Travelers are encouraged to organize their carry-on bags and keep them uncluttered to ease the screening process and keep the lines moving.

Somewhat curiously, I haven’t heard much about the new system causing problems, despite its having been started last summer. Perhaps, contrary to the teachings of experience, air travelers are indeed “organiz[ing] their carry-on bags and keep[ing] them uncluttered to ease the screening process and keep the lines moving,” as TSA has asked.

The TSA Administrator said that “these enhanced screening measures enable TSA officers to better screen for threats to passengers and aircrew while maintaining efficiency at checkpoints throughout the U.S….Our security efforts remain focused on always staying ahead of those trying to do us harm and ensuring travelers get to their destination safely.”

Well, they better had, because, as a result of the bizarre gun culture that pervades  American society, the greatest danger appears to come, not from terrorists, but from ordinary air travelers packing heat, ready to defend themselves and others from any threat, real or imagined. I say this because it is reliably reported that in just the first week of April, TSA discovered 64 firearms in carry-on bags at airports around the United States. Of those weapons, 52, or 81 percent, were loaded and 13, or 20 percent, had a round in the firing chamber.

This, despite the fact that TSA may assess civil penalties of up to $13,066 per violation per person for carrying prohibited items on an aircraft. https://americansecuritytoday.com/tsa-finds-63-firearms-carry-bags-last-week-learn-videos/ This, despite the fact that incidents of “out of control” passengers seem to be on the increase.

Were it not for the vigilant screening efforts carried out by TSA, and assuming the first week of April was typical, there is a chance that someone on your flight will be armed with a pistol with live rounds in the chamber, ready to shoot at … what? A provocation by another passenger? A rude flight attendant? At altitude, in a pressurized cabin.

Think this is  overstatement? In fact, the year 2017 set a record for weapons discoveries; according to TSA records:

  • 5 million (771,556,886) passengers traveled through 440 federalized airports in 2017, a rate of more than 2 million a day;
  • A record setting 3,957, firearms were discovered in carry-on bags, an average rate of 76.1 firearms per week, or . 10.8 firearms per day;
  • 3,324 (84 percent) of the total firearms discovered were loaded; and 1,378 (34.8 percent) of the total had a round chambered;
  • The most firearms discovered in one-month – 31 – were in August at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), but in total, firearms were intercepted at 239 airports.
  • The 2017 total represents a 16.7 percent increase in firearm discoveries over2016’s totalof 3,391.

https://www.tsa.gov/blog/2018/01/29/tsa-year-review-record-amount-firearms-discovered-2017

There’s more. The 2017 cache of intercepted weapons went well beyond mere pistols. A sample of other items includes:

  • A checked bag with an ammunition box with three live ground burst simulators, two live M83 smoke grenades, and one inert practice grenade — Palm Springs International Airport (PSP).
  • A live flashbang grenade in a carry-on bag — San Diego International Airport (SAN).
  • A live smoke grenade — Raleigh–Durham International Airport (RDU).
  • A one-pound bottle of gun powder in a checked bag at the Ketchikan International Airport (KTN).
  • Five one-pound bottles of gun powder in a checked bag — Boise Airport (BOI).
  • A ten-ounce container of gun powder in a checked bag — Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC).

This, my fellow Americans, is one small part of the regime we have allowed to develop in our country. So, next time you are tempted to complain about the security process at the airport, try to remember what you have read here. I don’t like going through security any more than anyone else, but without it, we’d all probably be killed by some “patriot” with a Glock 9mm in his briefcase.

How Long Does It Take to Figure Out Equal Treatment?

This has been a rough stretch for Starbucks, what with the arrest in Philadelphia of some black men who hadn’t ordered anything while waiting for a friend to arrive. I have done this more than once myself, back in the day before Starbucks did away with Sumatra in favor of “blonde” coffee, whatever that is.

I had written on Twitter that Starbucks needed to do more than issue the customary “equality is one of our most important values” talking point. I was impressed when the company announced it was closing operations across the country for a day to engage in serious training of its entire staff, including awareness of implicit bias and other factors that can, without one’s conscious awareness, influence how we react to people different from us in some particular.

At the same time, I was aware of the earlier announcement by Starbucks that it had “reached 100 percent pay equity for partners of all genders and races performing similar work across the United States.” https://news.starbucks.com/news/starbucks-pay-equity-for-partners That same announcement stated, however, that the process had taken ten years to finish. Flush with that news, the company Chief Partner Officer said that it would work “with deliberate speed” to close the gender pay gap worldwide.

I am seriously puzzled as to how a company working with “deliberate speed,” a phrase borrowed from the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education wherein the Supreme Court unanimously held that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. The Court directed the lower federal courts to enforce its decision “to admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases.”

The phrase was ultimately understood to mean “slow,” and that was indeed the pace of integration in the face of massive resistance by whites, especially in the South.  A fascinating discussion of the background, internal discussions and aftermath of the Brown decision can be read at https://ampr.gs/2HcERkx, including the etymology of the phrase “with all deliberate speed.”

Desegregating schools was a massive culture change for the entire nation, overturning practices that had persisted from the very origins of the country. Starbucks is just one company. It has records of who does what and what they are paid. Doling out coffee and tea is no doubt more complicated than I imagine, never having been a barista myself, but it is certainly not equivalent in complexity to desegregating the educational system of an entire country. The Starbucks announcement of its achievement goes on at great length to discuss how complicated the process was. Maybe so, but it reads somewhat like a set of excuses for a ten-year process that could and should have been accomplished much faster.

Setting aside my perhaps overly cynical reaction to the pay-gap announcement, Starbucks gets kudos for at least reaching the goal and committing to expand its scope in the near future. Meanwhile, we can only hope that it does not take another decade to convince its employees that treating black people the same as others is absolutely necessary, starting now.

 

 

Show Me Your Papers … Or Spend the Rest of Your Life in Hell

Hell in this case being, where else, a commercial airplane. The story, in case you missed it, is in the Washington Post: “Passengers sue government over immigration authorities’ demand they produce ID before leaving flight.” http://wapo.st/2gzQine The nine plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The government has now gone full-Nazi, a trend apparent since Donald Trump took office and began finding ways to strip Americans of their Constitutional rights. According to the story, way back in February two Customs and Border Protection agents blocked the jet way to an arriving aircraft and demanded identification documents from passengers trying to deplane. The crew had announced that showing government ID was required to deplane. Allegedly (presumption of innocence, or in this case truthfulness), passengers with the temerity to ask ‘why,’ were told it was “routine.” Ha! That’s a good one. Routine.

The routine is to be checked against various no-fly lists when you make a reservation and to be required to show ID at two stops en-route to the plane for its originating flight: once at the airline check-in counter and again at the TSA security checkpoint. If you skip the counter, because, say, you have no luggage and pre-printed your boarding pass, you still must show ID to pass security and board the plane. People who fly even somewhat regularly know this. The assertion that the pre-deplaning demand for ID was “routine” is pure … poppycock.

Not surprisingly, the Justice Department and CBP would not comment about the incident but said that the non-comment “should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.” Of course not. Everybody knows that when the Trump-led government refuses to admit something is true despite being witnessed by dozens of people, it’s …. Let’s move on.

According to the Post, the suit seeks to bar the government from demanding ID before deplaning without a warrant or some other individualized reason to ask. The government apparently acknowledged later that it was looking for an ”immigrant” who was subject to a deportation order to leave the United States. The flight in question was from San Francisco to New York JFK Airport. As reported, an official with the Department of Homeland Security said after the incident,

“When we’re asked by our law enforcement partners to assist in searching for a person of interest, we are able to, and will, help” …. “This isn’t a new policy or related to any new executive order.”

Of course, the target of all this activity was not actually on the flight.

To be clear, the CBP agents in question were doing the job that management had given them. They cannot be expected to say “hey, this is stupid. We can get the answer another way and without drama.” So, let’s stay focused on the real issue.

The incident raises the question: why couldn’t the federal government, using information already in its systems arising from the original clearance and boarding of the plan, have determined whether the target was on the plane? If the government was unable to do this, a serious concern about the integrity of the security process that controls who may board an aircraft is raised. Perhaps this will be explored during the litigation that has ensued from this ham-handed “intervention.”

Another question also intrigues me, but we’ll never know the answer:  what would have happened if one or more the passengers had said,

OK, I’m not subjecting myself to this process, that I believe violates my rights, so I’ll just return to my seat. I will stay on this plane until I am allowed to leave without having to re-establish my identity. I have enough food and water to hole up here for several days! Where are we flying next?

Would the federal agents have repeated the scene from the recent United flight in which a passenger refused to deplane and give his seat to an airline employee and was then violently dragged off the plane? Or, would they applied common sense and checked the computer records to see if the target was on the plane? Speculation is invited.

Comcast – The Worst Company in the World?

I knew this day would come. With a well-known history of missed appointments and other inexplicable service disruptions, I should not have been surprised when, after calling Comcast to order the upgraded X-1 cable box with its “talk to it” remote, Comcast promptly terminated my cable service. What else would you expect? Service was, of course, restored when I called to report the outage. Later that day, or maybe the next (it’s all a blur now), my Internet connection was again terminated. This time the Comcast representative said it was a “glitch” in Comcast’s software but thank you so much for choosing Comcast as your cable company. As if I had a choice. A few days later there was another service interruption. No explanation offered this time.

Then came the coup de grace. A few days later, I stopped working on my iMac about 3:30 pm, leaving the computer to “sleep,” while I also took a nap. I returned at about 6:00 pm to find that my collection of 120 subject-matter folders that held old but important emails had vanished! The folders, and their contents, were replaced by a new folder entitled, and I’m not making this up: “lost-807fd53” (followed by a string of 23 additional letters and numbers – try to picture it). The catch was that this new folder was … EMPTY! Thousands of emails gone, disappeared. I checked the Xfinity/Comcast email website and the same empty “lost” folder appeared there as well.

You know where this is going.

I called my go-to, AppleCare, and was told this was a Comcast problem. I then called Comcast. I spoke with three people at ever-higher levels of technical sophistication in what can be loosely called the “Comcast support regime.” All three tech reps had the same response: we cannot find your lost emails; we cannot explain what happened to them; but have a nice day and thank you for choosing Comcast as your email provider and have a nice day, is there anything else we can “help” you with. After some back-and-forth, during which I confess to being less than patient and accepting, the third person in the chain reluctantly agreed that he would “advance the case” to the Fourth Level and someone would contact me within 72 hours … but don’t expect a happy outcome. Oh, and ‘no, you can’t talk directly to the Fourth Level now.”

By now you have predicted, correctly, that the 72-hour window came and went without a call from the Fourth Level. Or any other contact from Comcast. What is there to say? Comcast has a monopoly on cable service in Alexandria and my apartment building is apparently wired to connect only to Comcast. What can you reasonably expect from a monopoly? If there is good news in this … there is none.

Well, except for one thing, but it’s not about Comcast. In desperation, I called Apple again. Apple has never failed me in solving a computer issue that was within its orbit. After a bit of confusion about how Apple Mail application interacts with Comcast’s servers, I reached a “second level” of technical support and a very pleasant young man walked me through a series of steps to recover all of the lost folders, with the lost emails residing in them as before. This miracle was possible because I run a program called Time Machine that comes with the iMac and backs up everything on the computer to a separate hard drive. Apple reps know stuff and, in my experience, always find a solution.

So, despite Comcast’s total failure to perform its obligations, the story has a happy ending. The moral of the story is: if you are using Comcast and have your email and/or other files on an Apple computer, you can avoid a feeling of rejection, subordination and helplessness by destroying your own emails – just delete them all straightaway and never be subjected to Comcast’s ineptitude again. To be safe, deleted all your files. Then you have nothing to worry about.

OR, go on offense, by getting Time Machine running right away. And thank you for choosing ….

American Airlines Customer Service – Updated, Over & Out

To bring closure to this sordid episode in airline hubris, we tried multiple times at Washington National and again at Tampa to get someone from American to address the problem it had created. The responses were to keep pushing us off to a later step in the process where, we were told, the now empty Row 13 would be available for assignment to us at the airport. Needless to say, that did not happen. The last person I spoke with in Tampa did not even bother to read the boarding passes and kept insisting that I was someone named Hammond, then said she was only working the Dallas flight and we should await the arrival of another gate agent. That’s when we gave up.

We traveled in separate rows, not the end of the world, being adults and all. But as a matter of principle, this is a classic case of corporate irresponsibility toward customers. At no time was a notation made in the record to do anything to resolve the problem American unilaterally created by breaching our seat purchase contract.

The last message from American to my wife, who made the initial seat arrangements, reads in relevant part:

“A systemwide reservations system migration which went into effect after you made your seat reservation but before your departure date created a problem with your reserved seats. While it may seem like a small matter, changes can play havoc with seat assignments. In such cases several passengers may have to be reaccommodated in a limited amount of space, reducing our ability to satisfy everyone’s first choice of seat location. Moreover, during the small window of time in between the modification to our schedule and the reassignment of reserved seats, it is possible for another customer to request and receive a seat previously held by someone else.” [Emphasis added]

Reading that, you would think some independent force brought all this about without American being aware it was coming and helpless to do anything to mitigate its effects. At no point is there an explanation of why our seats had to be reassigned. There was no evidence of an aircraft change or seating configuration change on the plane. This seems like just so much corporate double-speak, the sound of “you’re dismissed.”

And the final kicker: “while reserved seats aren’t guaranteed, the next time you fly with us and settle into your seat, we’ll do our best to provide you with the one you reserved.”  We understood that seat assignments aren’t guaranteed when they are made without charge, but foolish me, after so many years in the industry, I actually thought there was still some semblance of bilateral contractual responsibility involved when I paid for something and the other side signified acceptance. Be aware.

Time to move on to something more important.

How Not to Treat a Customer – American Airlines

I told myself I wouldn’t write about the industry in which I worked for so many decades, but enough is enough.

On November 20, 2016 my wife booked herself, her daughter and me on flights from Washington DC to Tampa tomorrow morning. Since we were denied the opportunity to get free seat assignments on the return, my wife paid a premium of $24 per seat so we could sit together in Row 15. She received an email confirmation of the purchase and the seat assignments.

Today we received the usual notice to check-in and saw that we no longer had the seats on the return flight. Instead we were offered the opportunity to buy two of the seats we had already paid for but at a $10 higher price. The middle seat was gone. But we can buy the middle seat in Row 14, an Exit Row, for $61. Or we could wait until we get to the airport and take our chances. All of the other seats on the seat map are shown as X’d, meaning they are “unavailable.”

American’s explanation was that there was a “reconfiguration of inventory.” This action occurred on January 4, roughly six weeks ago. No notice from American which is sitting on our money with no intention of returning it until, they said, it was noticed that we didn’t sit in the seats we paid for, at which point they would “automatically refund” the money paid for the seats.

We were further told that it is “no longer possible” to move the person occupying the middle seat that we had paid for. The other two seats in Row 15 are still available for purchase at the $10 higher price.

This bait and switch scheme is another example of what happens when there is no real competition among the airlines. And, of course, there is no practical remedy because the airlines are immune from suit under state laws governing fraud. We could, perhaps, make out a case of breach of contract, but I suspect there is buried somewhere in AA’s terms and conditions a statement that says its promises to provide special seats in return for additional charges are not binding.

The bottom line from American – come to the airport and bring the situation to the attention of the gate agent who will “do her best” to get your party seated together, somewhere on the airplane, precisely what we intended to avoid happening by paying extra for assigned seats.

I will be lodging this as a complaint with the Department of Transportation but it is largely helpless to compel airlines to live up to their promises regarding purchased seat assignments.