Saturday, September 29, 2007

CBP: How Dare You Question Our Authority To Question You?

Sherman Oaks, California

One or two people objected strongly enough to my post yesterday about U.S. citizens’ answering questions at Passport Control to leave comments which are examples of the authoritarian mind frame of petit law enforcement.

“Typical American,” posted Anonymous at 6:09 a.m., “thinks you can just waltz back into the U.S. without any questions being asked.”

No, as my post makes clear, I am not objecting to questions which bear upon the issue of citizenship, since Customs and Border Protection officers are expressly empowered to ask such questions.

But CBP officers are operating outside their authority when they ask returning U.S. citizens about the countries they visited or other irrelevant issues.

Potentially acceptable questions: “Where did you obtain your passport?” “Where were you born?” “How old were you when this picture was taken?”

Unacceptable questions: “Why did you travel to that country?” “Who did you travel with?” “What did you do while you were in that country?” "What is your occupation?"

The second comment (which was probably made by the person who made the first comment) states that CBP officers ask questions to determine if the traveller is using a phony document. I don’t have a problem with that. But “You travel a lot. Why?” is not a question which bears on that point.

The first comment claims its author works for CBP. Both comments reveal that the writer(s) are appalled that a citizen would do anything other than meekly submit to CBP's demands.

These are the fascists, United States of America, 2007.

(Note: Before I am accused of a visual misrepresentation, the government photograph above depicts a non-citizen being electronically fingerprinted. U.S. citizens do not have to provide a fingerprint as a condition of re-entry -- yet.)

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Refusing To Answer Questions At Passport Control

Sherman Oaks, California

When I re-entered the United States, I wondered how the immigration officer had the authority to ask me questions about where I had traveled.

Turns out, he didn’t.

When a traveller enters the United States, the traveller's passport is reviewed by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer. At the immigration checkpoint, the CBP officer has certain stated powers – and the power to question a U.S. citizen about his or her travels is not one of them.

Federal regulations state that, if a person entering the country claims to be a U.S. citizen, the traveller “must establish that fact to the examining officer’s satisfaction and must present a U.S. passport if such passport is required . . . .” 8 C.F.R. 235.1(b). If the officer is not satisfied with the claim of U.S. citizenship, the traveller is treated as an alien.

To help ascertain citizenship, a CBP officer can question the traveller under oath. 8 U.S.C. section 1225(a)(5).

However, the Act of Congress which grants CBP officers the right to examine travellers under oath specifically limits the scope of the questioning to inquiries “regarding the purposes and intentions of the applicant in seeking admission to the United States.” Id. These questions can include “the applicant’s intended length of stay and whether the applicant intends to remain permanently or become a U.S. citizen, and whether the applicant is [otherwise prohibited from entering the U.S.].”

Neither the statute nor any of its attendant regulations grants CBP a broad right to interrogate U.S. citizens as a condition of re-entry. Under the plain language of the law, if a U.S. citizen is not under oath, CBP can ask questions to “establish [the] fact” of citizenship and, if a U.S. citizen is placed under oath during the questioning, CBP can make inquiries “regarding the purposes and intentions of the applicant in seeking admission to the United States.”

Under my reading of the law, a U.S. citizen would be within his or her rights to present the CBP officer with a valid passport and refuse to answer any questions which did not bear directly on the issue of U.S. citizenship.

Not that I recommend it.

The moment a person refuses to answer additional questions, that traveller will have committed “contempt of cop.” The CBP officer is only supposed to detain a returning U.S. citizen if the officer has cause to think that the traveller is not a U.S. citizen or has otherwise committed a crime. But it’s eminently possible that a person who asserts his or her rights, however politely, will receive a disproportionate negative reaction. In a worst case scenario, a CBP officer with a bruised ego could make a bad faith determination that a returning U.S. citizen is actually an alien, consigning the traveler to the nether world of alien processing.

“Then why make a fuss over something so trivial?” you may ask.

Because trivial is in the eye of the beholder. Because government officers should not be duping citizens into revealing information the citizen has no obligation to reveal. Because, as the Identity Project reported last week, the information provided to CBP officers is entered into government databases. Because power ceded by citizens to government is rarely given back. Because, every once in a while, law enforcement officers need to be reminded that they only have the limited powers that citizens choose to give them.

And because it’s none of their damned business.

(Note: In this post, I am referring only to the passport inspection, not to the separate customs inspection. The ability of CBP officers at the customs checkpoint to ask questions, and a citizen's obligation to reveal information on Form 6059B, will be discussed in a later post.)

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Newburyport Posts: The Second-Greatest Blog In The History Of The Interwebs

Sherman Oaks, California

He came to bury other blogs, not to praise them.

Newburyport Posts, a blog about politics in the cosmopolitan resort town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, has caused the normally rough-and-tumble blog world to quietly edge out of the way for fear of being hurt.

"It's going to seriously cut into my mindshare," said Marcos Moulitsas of The Daily Kos. "Young Hollywood gossip can't compete with waterfront development north of Boston," said Perez Hilton. Matt Drudge posted three red sirens.

An in-depth investigation by Knife Tricks -- corroborated by a forensic analysis of the domain name -- revealed that Newburyport Posts is written by former Boston University Daily Free Press city editor Tom Salemi (pictured in younger days). Sources have revealed on condition of anonymity that Salemi is married, is raising a young son, holds a steady job at a medical industry publication and has admitted to being a member of the Newburyport Ad Hoc Parking Committee, among other unsavory "lifestyle choices."

A few brave bloggers responded with catty snark, an attitude rarely seen online.

"This wonk in eastern Mass. is complaining about a town election with a 25% turnout," noted blogger Paul Karl Lukacs, while simultaneously cruising the internet for web sites about grown men who like airplanes a little too much.

"Does he know that Los Angeles had a school board election this spring with a turnout of 4%? If voter turnout is the biggest problem in Salemi's little Liechtenstein-By-The-Bay, then trade journalists are grossly overpaid," Lukacs said while downloading a "saucy" photograph of a Costa Rican-registered de Havilland Twin Otter.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Friday Night Thoughts

I miss Hong Kong.

I miss Hong Kong.

I miss Hong Kong.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Getting Out: Your Guide To Leaving America

Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America by Mark Ehrman (Process Media 2006).

Straight single men are people, too.

Not that you’d know it from reading travel books.

Straight women’s concerns on the road are well documented. Wanderlust and Lipstick bills itself as “the essential guide for women traveling solo.” It competes with Go Your Own Way: Women Travel The World Solo, Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik: One Woman’s Solo Misadventures Across Africa and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007, to name three books from different branches of the travel writing tree. The oldsters have their own book, called A Foxy Old Woman’s Guide To Traveling Alone. Watch out, boys, the Widow Corrigan is ringing the bell and buying everyone a round!

If you’re a gay man, you can select from a rainbow-colored inventory including Spartacus International Gay Guide, 50 Fabulous Gay-Friendly Places To Live, Utopia Guide to Asia and Gay Travels In The Muslim World, the last of which sounds interesting whatever your sexual preference. Damron publishes a lesbian travel guide, although I would rather read Tales of Travelrotica For Lesbians.

If you want to take the kids on the road, you have literally hundreds of books to choose from. Turns out, places other than Orlando are happy to host your kids. My house is not one of those places.

What about single straight men? Despite the fact that we constitute at least the plurality of solo and long-term travelers, our specific concerns are rarely addressed. In fact, if you do an Amazon search for “solo male travel,” the jillion-dollar algorithm spits out a list dominated by books about women traveling by themselves. When the world’s most extensive book retailer can’t find a single title tailored to the needs of unattached male travelers, something is wrong.

Consequently, I don’t want to be too hard on Getting Out: Your Guide To Leaving America by Mark Ehrman. The book is a symptom of the problem, not the cause.

Still. The book devotes 340 pages to the topic of becoming an expatriate; in those pages, the concerns of women, gay men and lesbians are discussed at length and on a country-by-country basis. Well and good. That’s not my complaint.

My complaint is that the issues which specifically impact straight single expat men are ignored. What is the male-female ratio in the capital city? What is the attitude of local women to dating Western men? What is the prevalence of pre-marital sex? Do dowries have to be paid and, if so, how much? Are pre-nuptial agreements enforceable?

So far as Getting Out and thousands of other travel publications are concerned, these questions do not exist. The travel literature industry appears to have internalized a belief that issues of concern to heterosexual unmarried men are somehow sexist or exploitative.

The author and researchers of Getting Out manifest this misandrist attitude to an absurd degree. In writing short profiles of “The Top 50 Expat Meccas,” they took the time to learn the laws in 50 countries regarding abortion, homosexuality and “women’s issues,” but they could not be bothered to report whether there are any social or legal impediments to marrying a local woman. I am not saying the slight is intentional; it may have been completely subconscious, but the slight is there.

Floating on the surface of Getting Out is a pernicious gender-based double standard found throughout contemporary travel writing: The belief that it is acceptable for women to move to another country to increase their romantic prospects, but that it is not acceptable for men to do so.

“I, a short, somewhat chubby woman of 38 years, was about a six in the U.S.,” said Tracy, one of the many expats interviewed in Getting Out. “Apparently, I am more like an eight on the Greek sex appeal scale.”

British men are “less in thrall to the Barbie doll/cheerleader model of beauty,” said Ellin, who moved from New York to London. “Not only did I feel I appealed to more British men, just as importantly, more of them appealed to me.”

Again, well and good. But the male perspective on exactly the same issue is not offered by Getting Out. In many books and publications, the idea of a Western man moving to a foreign country to increase his odds of dating or marrying is automatically dismissed as perverted or desperate. Turnabout is not deemed fair play.

Getting Out has other problems as well. The book is poorly proofread, with distracting typos. Some of the information, like the list of countries which do not have extradition treaties with the United States, is unsourced. Certain recitations of law are technically accurate but incorrect in practice. (For example, while Singapore has a law on the books outlawing male homosexual conduct, it is rarely enforced.)

Getting Out is sadly reflective of this moment in travel writing. Overly political. Thinly researched. Convinced that the plurality of travelers – single men – are not worth writing about.

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The Federalism of Star Trek

Sherman Oaks, California

George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin either makes hyper-efficient use of his time or needs a heavier teaching load.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I'm Blushing

Thursday, September 13, 2007

"The magic combination of imposed order and disobedient chaos that makes China tick."

Sherman Oaks, California

James Fallows files a trip report about seat assignment on Shanghai Airlines.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Flying: Safer Than Ever

Sherman Oaks, California

In 1993, Airbus introduced into commercial service the twin-engine, double-aisle A330. In the 14 years since, Airbus has delivered 481 A330s, and not one passenger has died.

The same year, Airbus introduced into commercial service the four-engine, double-aisle A340. In the 14 years since, Airbus has delivered 346 A340s, and not one passenger has died.

In 1995, Boeing introduced into commercial service the twin-engine, double-aisle 777. In the 12 years since, Boeing has delivered 649 777s, and not one passenger has died.

1, 476 planes. 0 fatal events. 0 reasons to worry.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Osama Moves Units

Sherman Oaks, California

In his latest videotape, Osama bin Laden name checks Noam Chomsky.

By 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, September 8, 2007, Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival had an overall Amazon rank of 1,460 and posted at #5 in the Non-Fiction/Politics/Globalization sub-directory.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Defending Frequent Flyer Miles, Nineteen Years Later

Sherman Oaks, California

This is the post where I respond to a 19-year-old New Republic column, conclusively proving that I have too much time on my hands.

Michael Kinsley (pictured) is the country’s most intelligent and humorous columnist, and he was in top form during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. On the night that Bill Clinton was elected president, Kinsley wrote a column with the best lead sentence I’ve ever read:

“No doubt it will all end in tears. But for the moment, I FEEL GREAT!”

Both sentences were accurate.

Kinsley’s columns from the era are collected in a 1995 paperback called Big Babies, which is his description of the American electorate with its contradictory demands for more spending and lower taxes. Kinsley breezes with verve through all the great issues of the day: the Bork nomination, Iran-contra, the first Bush presidency and the rise of Bill Clinton.

But what really caught my eye was a column about frequent flyer miles.

On April 25, 1988, Kinsley’s New Republic column, headlined “Skyway Robbery,” attacked frequent flyer miles and triple-mile promotions as “a commercial bribe.”

“As the blight spreads to rent-a-car companies, hotels, and credit cards, mileage has turned into a sort of black-market currency operating beside the dollar,” Kinsley wrote. “Frequent flyer programs are in essence a bribe to employees deciding how to spend the boss’s money. When amounts smaller than a billion dollars are involved, people have gone to jail for this sort of thing.”

“Frequent flyer programs are specifically designed to prevent the boss from reclaiming the kickback,” he continued. “That’s one reason they’re so complex. American’s original program simply distributed coupons on each flight that could be saved up and used for free travel. When companies demanded that employees turn in the coupons, coupons were replaced by today’s elaborate computerized accounting systems and various rules were added making the mileage credits hard to transfers.”

Kinsley is correct, but so what? Individual employees enjoy all sorts of freebies and perks in which the employer does not share. Lunches, tchotchkes, box seats, contacts, reputation, leads on landing a better job. All are a part of the work-a-day world, and I have yet to hear about a boss becoming exercised because the office supply salesman slipped the office manager a promotional paperweight and four tickets to Medieval Times.

Kinsley overlooks the fact that most employees do not have carte blanche in selecting their travel arrangements. Many offices have a travel coordinator or a written travel policy; there’s so many, there’s a trade group. In any event, the company or client budget can only withstand so much financial headwind, so, although it’s not their money, there are limits on what employees can spend on travel.

Kinsley takes four jabs at “rip-off” frequent flyer miles.

“First, ticket prices are higher than they otherwise would be, in order to pay for the free travel and because the programs replace true price competition,” Kinsley wrote.

This isn’t an argument against frequent flyer miles, it’s an argument against all promotions. Assuming a zero-sum universe (which I doubt is the case), every dollar spent on an airline promotion is a dollar that needs to be added to ticket prices.

The entrenched domestic carriers, called the Big Six, could spend their promotion budgets on wider seats with more space between the rows, but their business judgment is that consumers would rather have a mileage program. In an illustration of that dynamic, American Airlines quietly dropped its “More Room Throughout Coach” promotion in 2004 but retained its AAdvantage miles club. That’s what the customers apparently wanted.

“Second,” Kinsley continued, “the programs encourage travelers to go for the airline they belong to, rather than the one with the cheapest fare. That’s the main idea, of course. If frequent flyers were paying for their own tickets, this wouldn’t matter. But generally they’re not.”

Kinsley misses the fact that an employee could select a particular airline for a non-price-related reason that benefits the business. Routes and departure times are a significant factor in selecting air travel, as are on-time performance and amenities which allow for on-board work. Ultimately, most business flyers want to travel to and from their destination as quickly and comfortably as possible; the miles are a nice bonus, but they’re not the central variable in the equation for the majority of people.

“Third, a more egregious form of the same abuse: People take entirely needless trips in order to run up their mileage,” Kinsley wrote.

You’re hitting close to home there, Mikey. One man’s “needless trips” is another man’s “Air Canada mileage run to Vancouver, Kodiak, Yellowknife, Saskatoon, Toronto, Quebec City and Vancouver, all for triple miles, yipee!!”

People who engage in mileage runs -- and they are a tiny percentage of travelers -- usually purchase the tix on their own dimes. Bizarre, multi-airport routings would flag the curiosity of someone in the back office. Sophisticated mileage runners can create high-mileage itineraries without appreciably increasing the ticket price. If a person spends the extra flight time engaged in work, what does it matter to the employer?

“Fourth,” Kinsley concluded, “frequent flyer programs protect the established airlines from upstart competition, thereby raising prices.”

On this point, My Favorite Columnist Before I Started Reading David Brooks was wrong, laughably wrong, more wrong than his hilarious prediction (also found in Big Babies) that the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas would focus on the jurisprudential doctrine of natural law.

As I’ve blogged before, domestic airfares have been in freefall for the last 30 years. On many routes, it’s cheaper to fly than drive. Kinsley’s prediction that frequent flyer programs would drive up prices is refuted by the fact that not even increases in the price of jet fuel have raised tickets prices.

Of course, the domestic carriers are protected. They’re protected by the provision of federal law which prohibits foreign ownership of a domestic carrier, so the Northwests of the world don’t have to compete with the Emirateses on lucrative domestic routes. They’re also protected by the Fly America Act, which coerces people on federal government business to use U.S. carriers, although a foreign carrier may be offering a superior product on the same route. And they’re protected by the market assumption – proven correct in the wake of 9/11 – that if the Big Six find themselves in Big Trouble, the feds will bail them out.

The situation reminds me of one of Kinsley’s famous sayings: “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal.”

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Bunk Beds In The Sky

Sherman Oaks, California

Lufthansa has floated a trial balloon about lie-flat Economy Class beds, configured three-high like the sleeper compartment of a train.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Flight of the Titans

Flight of the Titans by Kenny Kemp (Virgin Books 2006).

Flight of the Titans is advertised – and the front and back covers of a book are legally advertisements – as the story of two airplanes battling for supremacy in the aviation marketplace.

It is – but it takes most of the book to get there. In the meanwhile, Flight of the Titans is like sitting on the tarmac waiting for clearance to depart. You keep wondering what the holdup is and when you’ll start the journey you paid for.

“Airbus A380 vs Boeing 787 Dreamliner” it touts on the front cover. This isn’t a story reserved for the pasty palms of airplane nerds. Hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars are at stake because two companies made massive and seemingly incompatible bets on the needs of the market.

From a First World perspective, there are only two companies that make large commercial passenger jets. Boeing is the classic American company, long associated with Seattle, Washington, while its rival Airbus is a consortium of European aerospace firms, headquartered in Toulouse, France. If you board a plane that fits more than 100 passengers, it is almost certainly a Boeing or an Airbus. (I saw “from a First World perspective” because companies in the former Soviet Union also manufacture large commercial passenger jets, but the planes are seldom seen outside the FSU and Africa.)

Boeing and Airbus have sharply different corporate cultures. Boeing is a company of “can do” American workaholics bringing to the post-9/11 world the same drive that infused the company during the Cold War. Boeing’s management and its unions could be less than visionary, but the engineers and the salespeople could operate the place on autopilot if necessary. For decades, Boeing built the most popular planes in the world, gobbling up its rivals along the way.

When Airbus was founded in 1970, Boeing dismissed the venture as a jury-rigged, subsidized European jobs program – which Airbus undeniably is. Unfortunately for Boeing, Airbus also makes some great planes.

Airbus isn’t a company – it’s a colony. BAE Systems designs and manufactures the wings, the heart of the planes, in the United Kingdom. Daimler-Benz Aerospace fabricates fuselages in Germany. The Spanish company CASA creates the flight control systems. The design and manufacture of parts is sub-contracted to thousands of companies around the world, including many in the United States. Then all the pieces are shipped to either Hamburg (the smaller planes) or Toulouse (the larger planes) for final assembly and flight testing.

(You’re asking yourself, “How does Airbus move giant hunks of half-finished airplane around Europe?” The answer is that Airbus uses a fleet of five specially designed transport planes called Belugas and floats some large components down waterways on barges. Airbus also uses trucks.)

As the turn of the century loomed, the muscular American heritage company and the ill-defined European multinational each examined the future of commercial aviation and came to opposite conclusions.

Airbus decided that growth would occur between the “super-hubs” – the world’s busiest 50 or so airports. Airlines would need to move more passengers and more cargo on well-established routes, Airbus predicted, but airport expansion was so politically difficult that the number of gates and runways would grow far slower than the number of passengers or the amount of cargo. The future, therefore, was a larger plane – the double-decker A380.

Boeing decided that growth would occur among hundreds of second- and third-tier cities. People in Seattle, say, would want to fly directly to Copenhagen without changing planes or landing to refuel. The future, therefore, was a smaller plane – the 787 “Dreamliner.”

It’s a gripping tale of corporate competition, but Flight of the Titans does not begin to tell it until Page 156. Instead, author Kenny Kemp becomes distracted with various episodes of aerospace history that don’t have much relation to the A380-787 showdown. While reading many of the early chapters, I found myself asking why they were in the book.

Aviation is a complex beat, requiring a journalist to write with ease about business, politics, science, economics and the human element. The writer also has to know what to leave out when writing for a general audience. Kemp doesn’t police the line between trade journalism and popular journalism, resulting in sentences like “It was only after the International Aero Engines consortium was created by Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce, that GE/SNECMA upgraded the CFM56.”

In a few years, we’ll know whether Airbus or Boeing made the better bet. Maybe by then, we’ll also have a flavorful and compelling book on the subject.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Gloria" Before Branigan

In 1981, Atlantic Records was searching for a song that would break their new act, an ingénue named Laura Branigan. The label selected this 1979 track by Italian pop star Umberto Tozzi. The song was fitted with English lyrics, and Atlantic had its hit. Branigan died three years ago this week of a brain aneurism at the age of 47.