Into The Heartland

Yesterday Kish and I drove east and north on a weekend trip.  Our destination was Carroll County, to pay a visit to Cousin Jeff.

Carroll County is one of the least populous– and therefore one of the most bucolic — counties in Ohio.  It’s primarily farming territory, with some Amish communities mixed in and the occasional fracking platform tucked behind a screen of trees.  It’s a wonderful place to go if you like rolling countryside, the sound of birdsong, and winding roads that seem to never really go anywhere except past pretty Midwestern scenery, with horses and cows, silos and hay bales, and farmhouses and barns.

During our visit we stopped at the lovely Twigg Winery, where I had a glass of tasty Ohio red and we took in the captivating vista inadequately pictured above.  There we bought several cartons of strawberries that were hand-picked yesterday morning.  Forget the fist-sized, fibrous monstrosities you get at your neighborhood mega-grocery store — these sweet, tart beauties were bursting with flavor and freshness and made you remember what strawberries are supposed to taste like.

Carroll County is a good place to visit if you want to get off the beaten path and kick back into our rural heritage.

A Harsh Screed On Airplane Boarding

I’ve been doing a lot of air travel lately, and I’ve concluded that the boarding process is broken beyond repair.  Inevitably, it produces delays, irritation, and examples of all that is bad in human nature.   And, it even results in situations where normally even-tempered people (which I thought reasonably applied to me, until last night) end up grinding their teeth and resenting people who claim to have some kind of infirmity or other reason to receive preferential treatment.  I’ve reached the point where I’ve jsut got to unburden myself about it.

Last night, as I flew home on a Southwest flight, I saw all of the elements of what makes modern air travel so frustrating.  (Of course, Southwest goes by the A/B/C open-seating  approach, but the “zone” approach to seating now seems to be used by pretty much everybody, so the lessons are the same.)  We start by giving preferential seating treatment to anybody who claims some kind of infirmity.  They roll, hobble, or walk down the jetway first, and always take the choicest seats at the front of the plane — inevitably on the aisle, where they can take their own sweet time about getting out of their seats and allowing people to sit in the window or middle seats in their aisle, delaying the people who are getting on behind.  This always causes me to wonder why they choose the aisle seat, knowing that getting up and down, twice, is going to be a very . . . deliberate process

Then the people coming on behind take their aisle seats first, toward the front of the plane.  When people want to sit in the middle or window seats in their aisles, the aisle seaters have to stand up and block the aisle to allow the others through, further delaying people who are coming aboard.  And, as those people queue up, there are always further traffic jams behind as people try to find room in overhead bins around their seats.  On last night’s flight, some inconsiderate jerk shoved his bag into an inadequate space so that it was hanging halfway out of the overhead bin, which clearly couldn’t be closed, then left it up to a busy flight attendant to lug it somewhere else while claiming that he couldn’t do so because he was sitting inside one of the aged who takes forever to rise from his seat.

And, of course, deplaning is equally bad.  The aged and infirm at the front of the plane take forever to leave, and last night one of them decided he had to be a raconteur as he was oh-so-slowly getting off the plane, chatting up the captain and the flight attendants who had to act charmed by his comments while people who just wanted to get home were stacked up behind him like planes in a holding pattern over O’Hare.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who wished the codger would shut his pie hole and have the minimal self-awareness to recognize that he was unnecessarily inconveniencing everybody else.  By the time he and the rest of the aged had shuffled off the plane, the tension level of everyone behind them has reached a fever pitch and blood vessels were ready to burst.

So here’s my modest, politically incorrect, screed-infused proposal.  Can we please go back to boarding aircraft from the rear of the plane forward, so we don’t have the inevitable traffic jams that come from allowing people who are seated all over the plane to get to their seats in random order?  And while I understand the need to allow people who say they need “extra assistance” to get on the plane first, how about making sure that they are seated together and not on the aisle, so we don’t have to wait forever while they rise from their seats to let us by?  And how about adopting a first-on, last-off policy, which says that anybody who claims priority in boarding also agrees to wait until everybody else deplanes before they leave the plane?  This would avoid the wheelchair/walker/standing cane-related deplaning snarls that now occur — and might have the incidental benefit of discouraging people who really don’t need the special treatment to refrain from claiming it in the first place.  And if the seniors decide they need to have a long discussion with the flight attendants as they leave the plane, the rest of us won’t have to wait while they do so.

Air travel has really become unpleasant.  The boarding process is a big part of it.  I know waiting for five, ten, or fifteen minutes while these common issues are worked through, flight after flight after flight, isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but when you just want to get home every moment seems precious, and I’d rather spend them with my family than listening to Grandpa tell some eye-rolling joke to the co-pilot as he exits the plane at a glacial pace.

In The Cell Phone Lot

Thursday night found us in the cell phone lot of the Columbus airport, waiting for the arrival of a delayed plane at about 11:30 p.m.

When you think about it, the cell phone lot is a pretty weird place.  There you are, cheek by jowl with total strangers, with everyone’s cars packed tightly together.  And yet, while you are in close absolute physical proximity, in the sense that the cars and their drivers are literally right next to each other, there is a strong feeling of near complete emotional separation.  Everyone remains ensconced in their own little tightly controlled, specially heated or cooled vehicular cocoon, typically with their car in park and their engine humming, paying close attention to their cell phones.

In the cell phone lot, no one acknowledges the people in other cars.  No, even eye contact and a simple nod would somehow violate the perverse etiquette of the place.  In the cell phone lot, we’re all just there on our own, waiting for that call or a text, like lost souls in purgatory hoping to be summoned to our final destination.

At the Columbus airport lot, there are two curiosities.  One is a sign that says you can’t stay in the cell phone lot for more than an hour.  An hour?   In the psychically sterile cell phone lot, which gives off the ultimate in transient, leave me alone and get me out of here vibes?  Even 10 minutes in the lot is soul-crushing.

The other is a picnic table located right next to the lot.  I’ve never seen anyone sitting at that table, and I expect I never will.  Leave aside for a moment that a spot right next to a parking lot full of cars in idle, leaking exhaust, wouldn’t exactly be the kind of pastoral setting you look for in picnics — not only does no one in the cell phone lot want to leave their cars, they don’t want to see anyone else leave their cars, either.  If someone exited their car to sit at the picnic table, I’d predict that the other cars would immediately reposition themselves to form an empty buffer zone between themselves and the person who is breaching all perceived rules of modern behavior and is probably an axe murderer, besides.  In fact, the rest of us would probably leave the cell phone lot and take another lap around the baggage claim pick-up zone, just to clear our heads and get away from the unseemly misconduct.

Setting The Right Speed Limit

The other day I was driving on a highway, tooling along on a clear and bright spring day during a non-rush hour period, when I came upon a little traffic snarl.  Road construction?  Rubber-necking past an accident site?  Nope.  It was somebody driving too slow in the passing lane, causing other cars in that lane to pile up behind him as he inched past the car in the slow lane.  Then people started to duck around the line of cars to see if they could pass by on the right.  Suddenly you had another illustration of my long-held view that the real problem on the highways is not your average speeders — that is, the people who routinely drive above the speed limit, as opposed to the drag racers or road ragers — but rather drivers who are driving too slow in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Traffic engineering studies that substantiate this belief.   When traffic engineers review the speed limits on road, they invariably try to set the limit using the “85th percentile” method: that is, finding the number at which 85% of drivers drive at or below the posted speed limit and only 15% exceed it.  Why?  Because while most people drive at what they think is an appropriate speed given the prevailing conditions — a speed that often doesn’t conform to the posted limits — there is a core of people who actually faithfully obey the speed limits.  If the posted speed limits are set too low for the “I’ll drive at an appropriate speed” crowd, you’ve created a situation where there is a significant speed variance between that group and the speed driven by the faithful obeyers.

And that is the point of maximum roadway danger, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has concluded that “the potential for being involved in an accident is highest when traveling at speed much lower or much higher than the majority of motorists.”   As the article linked above notes, the 85th percentile approach is the traffic engineers’ method of threading the needle between the approaches of the appropriate speeders and the faithful obeyers:  “Traffic engineers believe that the 85th percentile speed is the ideal speed limit because it leads to the least variability between driving speeds and therefore safer roads. When the speed limit is correctly set at the 85th percentile speed, the minority of drivers that do conscientiously follow speed limits are no longer driving much slower than the speed of traffic.”

But here’s the rub:  setting speed limits to actually match the 85th percentile test would mean raising the speed limits on most American roads, because right now about 50 percent of drivers routinely exceed posted speed limits.  In short, the appropriate speeders are telling the traffic engineers that the posted limits are too low, so to get to the 85 percent figures engineers would need to increase the speed limits.  That move would be applauded by the majority of drivers, but lower speed limits are reflexively supported by safety advocates — and by towns that pad their budgets by issuing speeding tickets on the stretch of roadway that passes through the township limits.  Everybody who lives nearby knows where those speed traps are. but the out-of-towners get tagged with expensive tickets, pay them by mail, and help the town to hit its revenue projections.

Traffic issues are one of the great imponderables in modern society, where the experts say all of their data and experience points in one direction — raising speed limits — but political considerations work in the opposite direction and keep the limits below what most drivers would prefer.  On most roadways, that magic 85th percentile number remains a pipe dream that probably won’t be realized until the human factor is eliminated and we’re all being moved around by self-driving cars.

Bucket List

When Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman filmed The Bucket List, their characters had very lofty goals in mind — like climbing the Himalayas, racing Mustangs, or eating at the finest restaurants in France.  

Me? My “bucket list” items are simpler and more straightforward — like, what would it be like to be A 01 on a Southwest flight?  It turns out that is isn’t so much different from being A 35, because so many pre-boards go in first that you don’t get that “the plane is my oyster” feel.

Still, I got to sit in an exit row on a Southwest flight.  Not bad!  

Next stop . . . the Himalayas.

REAL ID

The other day I was in line to pass through security at the Columbus airport when I saw a sign announcing that, effective January 22, 2018, drivers’ licenses from certain states will not be accepted at TSA checkpoints as appropriate identification.  According to the sign, licenses from Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana and Washington are not compliant with something called the REAL ID Act.

REAL ID Act?  Of course, the name brought back memories of high school days, when your more daring classmates would proudly if furtively show you the fake ID they had acquired (featuring, of course, a name other than “McLovin”) in hopes of buying beer at the local carryout.  The TSA sign seemed kind of weird, and I found myself wondering why the federal government has a problem with the licensed issued by the “m” states . . . and Washington. So I followed the instructions on the sign and went to the tsa.gov website to see what it was all about.

It turns out that in 2005 Congress passed something called the REAL ID Act.  The Act establishes certain federally mandated minimum security standards governing issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards by states, and if the states are non-compliant, their licenses won’t be accepted for certain federal purposes — like passing through the federally operated security checkpoint at domestic airports.   (You also will need a REAL ID Act compliant drivers’ license if you want to get into a nuclear power plant, in case you were wondering.)  Ohio and a number of states are already compliant, still other states have received extensions to become compliant, and the four “m” states are noncompliant.

Why are some states resisting?  According to a member of the Maine state legislature, it’s because of concerns about privacy and the possibility that the Department of Homeland Security could interlink the information from the state drivers’ license bureaus to create a national identity database.  She also states that, to get a REAL ID drivers license, individuals must have their photograph taken with facial recognition software and have documents like a certified birth certificate and original social security card scanned into a database, where it will be kept for seven years — and, she notes, potentially would be accessible to hackers who are constantly trying to get to confidential personal information.  Her description of the bill, and the reasons for her opposition, ends on this ominous note: “And how much do you trust the federal government?”

I’m as interested in privacy as the next person, but it’s hard for me to get too excited about the REAL ID law.  Obviously, there is a need for identification cards, and all of the information that is collected as part of the REAL ID process seems to be already in possession of the federal and state governments, anyway.  I’m quite confident that the federal government knows what I look like (or could find out with a few strokes of a keyboard), facial recognition photos or not.  And since I have to fly frequently for my job, I need to have an ID card that gets me through security — so I’m glad Ohio licenses are compliant.

It’s troubling to think that people are so distrustful of the federal government that they would be concerned about a database that included photos and basic identification information, like Social Security numbers, that people routinely disclose on things like tax returns.  It says something about the fraying relationship between the government and the governed that the question of appropriate identification could be so controversial.

My Email From United’s CEO

At 1:37:54 a.m. this morning, I got an email from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.  1:37 a.m.?  Geez, Mr. Munoz is one hardworking dude!

united-airlinesMr. Munoz sent me the email to apologize for the disturbing recent incident in which a ticketed passenger was dragged from a United flight leaving O’Hare in order to allow a United employee to take his seat.  Mr. Munoz says the treatment of the passenger broke United’s promise to not only “make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.”  That’s a bit of an understatement, Mr. Munoz!  Something that doesn’t square with the “deepest sense of dignity and respect” would be, say, getting wedged into a seat next to a smelly, morbidly obese guy wearing a tank top who intrudes into your personal space.  Being left bloodied and semiconscious as you’re dragged from your seat doesn’t even square with the lowest level of service or the shallowest sense of dignity and respect.

But let’s not quibble about words.  Mr. Munoz thinks the incident happened because United’s “corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values” and “[o]ur procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”  He wants the incident to be a turning point for the company, so he’s changing United’s policies.  So now, United will “no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.”   That seems like a pretty basic, but certainly appropriate, step.  United also will offer up to $10,000 to entice passengers to voluntarily rebook, and will implement a “new ‘no-questions-asked’ $1,500 reimbursement policy” for “permanently lost bags.”

Finally, Mr. Munoz wants me to know that United Airlines intends to live up to “higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate.”  The goal, he says, “should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, ‘I fly United.'”

I’m not sure I’ve ever said that I was “proud” to fly any airline — or for that matter to own any particular brand of car, or to engage in any commercial transaction with a large company.  I found the United incident unsettling, but it wasn’t going to keep me from flying United.  Let’s face it, we’ve all seen weird incidents in which overzealous people have overreacted and made really bad choices, and when the United incident occurred I figured that United employees would, if anything, overcompensate in the opposite direction and do everything they could to try to fix the company’s PR nightmare.

Mr. Munoz’s early morning email suggests that that effort is still underway.