Getting “Bumped”

We’ve all been in this situation:  we’re at the gate, waiting for our plane, and the gate agent makes an announcement that the flight is overbooked and they’re looking for “volunteers” to take a later flight in exchange for a travel voucher.  If there are no immediate volunteers, the value of the voucher can go up . . . and up . . . and up.

But what if there are no volunteers, at any price?  I’ve never bitten on any of those offers because I would much rather get to where I’m going.  What if everyone on a particular flight took that approach?  I’ve always wondered about that scenario.

united-airlines-man-dragged-out-of-plane-253x189Now we’ve got an answer, of sorts.  On one overbooked United Airlines flight, from O’Hare Airport in Chicago to Louisville, an airport security officer physically assaulted a passenger who was in his seat on the plane and dragged him down the aisle and off the plane so United staff who needed to get to Louisville could take his seat.  Of course, other passengers had out their cell phones and took video footage of the encounter. The video is pretty shocking when you consider that the man who was mistreated was a ticketed passenger who had paid for the flight, checked in, and followed all of the rules.

United told passengers that four people needed to leave the flight and that it was selecting the people who needed to give up their seats to United staffers by random computer selection.  Three of the unlucky people apparently left voluntarily — but when the one passenger refused, he was forcibly removed.  One passenger said that the man had originally agreed to give up his seat, but rescinded his decision when he learned that the next available flight was not until the next day.

Of course, United officials and the Chicago Department of Aviation say that the actions of airport security were contrary to policy, and they’ve apologized.  United, meanwhile, is dealing with a PR nightmare.  How many people are going to think twice about choosing a United flight if, say, an American flight is available?  And for those of us who fly regularly, it’s an eye opener to think that you could be chosen randomly to give up that seat you reserve because an airline has decided that its staff needs to have that seat instead, and then mauled by airport police if you decline.

“Fly the friendly skies,” indeed!

Looking “Presidential”?

Last week President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian base that was implicated in a toxic chemical attack by the Syrian government against Syrian citizens.  This week we’ve got an array of U.S. Navy ships heading into the western Pacific regions, apparently as a show of force against North Korea, which has been engaged in repeated missile tests and is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

2017-04-08t082322z_1_lynxmped3705y_rtroptp_2_usa-china-cfCouple the military maneuvers with a few presidential summits with foreign leaders like the Chinese head of state and the president of Egypt, and you’ve also got a lot of people talking about Donald Trump looking “presidential.”  Of course, Presidents always are said to look “presidential” when they are dealing with foreign policy or ordering military action; that’s because those are areas where the President can act unilaterally, without having to try to convince balky Congresses to take one action or another.  It’s been a time-honored technique of the residents of the Oval Office for decades — if you’ve had a rough time on your domestic agenda, have a foreign leader over for a visit or try to shift the focus to the actions of a “rogue state” or “terrorist threat.”  So, whether through careful planning or happenstance, Donald Trump is following a well-thumbed presidential playbook.

It’s interesting that we frequently associate ordering military action and foreign policy positioning with looking “presidential,” because in doing so we’re really encouraging Presidents to spend their time on those areas rather than focusing on the domestic issues  that never seem to get addressed and actually trying to convince Congress to do something about those nagging problems.  How many Presidents, deep in their heart of hearts, have been tempted to engage in a little sabre-rattling or to lob a few missiles at a terrorist encampment or an air base to shift the focus of national attention and raise their approval ratings a few points?

Donald Trump isn’t the first President to receive the “looking presidential” kudos, and he probably won’t be the last, either.  But the association of military action and photo ops with foreign leaders with “looking presidential” troubles me.  Wouldn’t we rather incentivize our Presidents to focus on fixing what’s gone wrong in this country, and reserve the highest, gushing “looking presidential” praise for when the President does what the Constitution contemplates, and signs domestic legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress into law?

Knocking Around Austin

Austin lives up to its rep.  So far today we’ve explored the River Walk area, where the joggers and dog walkers roam, and checked out the downtown area and Texas Statehouse grounds. The weather is cooperating, too — warm but not too warm, with a little cloud cover and a decent breeze.


The Austin River Walk, which runs along the Colorado River and Lady Bird Lake, isn’t quite as elaborate as the San Antonio RiverWalk, but it’s a pretty area that obviously is well used by every Austinite who wants to get a little exercise.  It’s part of an extensive park system that includes a cool map of Texas and lots of room for dogs, kite-flying, and general lounging.


The Texas Statehouse grounds, as the top of the hill on Congress Street, are also interesting and attractive.  In addition to the impressive dome and the expected memorial to the heroes of the Alamo, shown below, I also caught an impromptu performance of a big, and impeccably attired, mariachi band, shown above.  When I walk by the Ohio Statehouse on my way to and from work every day I don’t often hear traditional mariachi music.

Backseat Nuclear

Yesterday the Senate voted to change its rules to determine that a 60-vote supermajority requirement does not apply to Supreme Court nominations.  The decision means that it will no longer be possible to filibuster Supreme Court nominations, which now can be approved by a simple majority vote.  That reality, in turn, clears the way for Neil Gorsuch to take a seat on the nation’s highest court.

868d7f9c0a0d02b700028bdae62105edAlthough everybody has called the procedural change “the nuclear option,” this whole spiraling process has always struck me as less like a tense, world-threatening confrontation between countries equipped with atomic weapons and more like a dispute between two bored and bratty kids sitting in the back seat of the family car.  Things escalate, suddenly the kids are pushing and shoving and yelling while the parents in the front seat try to break things up and calm things down, and in the end each red-faced kid blames the other for starting it.

In this case, Republicans blame Democrats for being the first to exercise the nuclear option, and Democrats respond that Republican intransigence forced that decision.  Republicans blame Democrats for reflexively opposing President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, despite his obvious qualifications, and Democrats respond that the Republicans’ refusal to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, who also was qualified for the Supreme Court, is what created the current atmosphere.  You really wondered what the parties were going to do absent this procedural change — automatically oppose all Supreme Court nominations by the President of the opposing party until the Supreme Court itself has vanished through age and attrition?

During those grim family car trips, the squabbling kids calm down, the journey continues, and the parents breathe sighs of exasperation and then relief.  Is that going to happen here and — as the parents in this scenario — how are exasperated American voters going to react?  The filibuster was a means of preserving some modicum of power for the minority and of requiring at least a nod to civility and consensus-building, but it also was a self-imposed rule that allowed individual Senators to feel self-important.  If it’s gone, it means that Senatorial privileges have been reduced and that those depictions of the U.S. Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” inhabited by statesman have been further undermined, because true statesmen, regardless of party, would never have allowed things to reach this embarrassing level.  

But, in this day and age, is anyone really surprised that the U.S. Senate is home to a bunch of partisan hacks, on both sides of the aisle, who have put party and interest groups ahead of the national interest?

All About The Wall

You may have missed it, but Tuesday was the deadline for companies to submit bids for the design of “the wall” that President Trump proposes to build along at least some parts of our southern border with Mexico.

Customs and Border Protection is supposed to review the bids and announce finalists in June, and then some of the finalists are expected to build prototypes of their designs on government-owned land in San Diego.  The AP reports that the government is expected to select four to ten finalists to build 30-foot-long prototypes at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 each.  Customs and Border Protection has indicated that it is looking for solid barriers, made of materials like concrete, rather than “walls” that rely on technology.

a0af3a441932abf668a4b1a868ee7b0aWe don’t know exactly how many companies submitted proposals, although apparently about 200 companies expressed interest in the border wall project.   I’m guessing that there were lots of bids.  What construction companies could resist bidding on a project that potentially involves pouring enormous amounts of concrete to build a barricade that extends for hundreds of miles?  The “wall” would make your standard highway construction project seem like a minor matter.

And although all of the bids haven’t been made public, we know what some companies are proposing because they have voluntarily disclosed their bids.  One bidder thinks the wall will become a kind of tourist attraction, and proposes a 56-foot-high wall designed with a walkway at the top to allow visitors to enjoy the desert vistas.  (“Hey kids!  Where should we go on our summer trip this year?  Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or the border wall?”)  A different proposal suggests that nuclear waste be buried in trenches along the wall — which presumably would quash any meaningful tourist activity, by the way.  Another company wants to erect solar panels on parts of the wall, to generate electricity that can be sold to communities in both the U.S. and Mexico to help pay for the wall’s cost, which would allow President Trump to say that he had met, at least in part, his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Will a wall actually be built, given the significant opposition to it?  We don’t know at this point, but we do know one thing:  the bids that have been made public so far indicate the this effort at large-scale wall building could be a very quixotic exercise.

On DUI Standards, How Low Should You Go?

Last month, the Utah legislature passed, and Utah’s governor signed, a measure reducing Utah’s standard for driving under the influence of alcohol.  Under the new Utah standard, which takes effect in December 2018, Utah’s threshold for drunk driving will be a blood alcohol level of .05 percent.  In Ohio, and most states, you can be charged with drunk driving if your minimum blood alcohol limit is .08 percent.

two-cups-of-beer-in-barIn Utah, the debate about lowering the level was a familiar one — on one side, people who have been personally affected by a drunk driver, as well as health and transportation advocates who think that lower standards will produce safer roadways and fewer accidents, and on the other, people in the tourism and hospitality industries who think that tougher standards will hurt their businesses.  The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all states lower their limits to .05 percent, contending that the stricter rules will deter people from drunk driving.  The American Beverage Institute, on the other hand, argued that a 120-pound woman could be at the .05 level after only one drink, and that a person driving with a .05 blood alcohol level is less impaired that a person driving while talking hands-free on a cell phone.

Part of the area of disagreement is that blood alcohol levels are a variable measure of illegal intoxication — because the same quantities of alcohol consumed will affect different people differently.  Men typically can drink more than women without hitting the limit, and heavier people can drink more than lighter people.  And, some people also question whether lower standards really will deter dangerous drunk driving, rather than simply ensnaring people who had two beers with friends after work — when the real road hazards are the people who are grossly intoxicated and are far over both the .05 percent limit and the standard .08 limit.  Often, the most serious accidents seem to involve serial violators who have been arrested multiple times for DUI violations but never seem to be deterred from drinking and driving, no matter what the standard is.

Drunk driving is one of those areas where there has been a sea change in public perception in my lifetime.  For years, the legal limit in most states was .15 percent, and drunk drivers were often tolerated by police — who might just escort the impaired driver home — and even were the subject of TV sitcom humor.  The recognition that drunk driving is dangerous and can be fatal, is unfair to other drivers, and needs to be stopped was a positive development.  And while some chronic cases keep drinking and driving, I think most people are very sensitive to the need to avoid even putting themselves, and other drivers, at risk, and either go with designated drivers or with Ubering it after a night on the town.

Is .05 percent the right standard?  I don’t know, but I think anything that gets people talking about drunk driving, and thinking about whether they should have one more drink and then drive, is a good thing.

The Smoking Lounge

My departure gate in the Atlanta airport today is located right next to the B concourse “Smoking Lounge.”  I realized it when I walked past just as someone exited the room and I caught an unmistakable whiff of cigarette smoke.

It’s not much of a “lounge, ” really — just a spartan room where smokers can gather cheek by jowl and puff away like mad.  It seemed like everybody in that room was trying to inhale as much smoke as they could, as fast as they could, and when they walked out they reeked of smoke.  It reminded me of the “teacher’s lounge” in high school, where any teacher walking out would trail a cloud of smoke. 

It’s kind of weird to see a Smokers Lounge in an American airport in our modern, anti-smoking world.