Wednesday, 30 September 2015
Bicycle components for touring in Argentina
When you are choosing what to bring on any trip, it's important to consider both what's appropriate for local conditions and what's locally available if you need to replace it. If you bring gear or components that aren't locally available, try to bring as durable equipment as possible, and bring spares for critical and/or easily damaged small parts if weight permits.
That's especially true for a bicycle tour, where your trip is highly dependent on the smooth functioning of a complex machine (although a much simpler and more elegant one than a motor vehicle).
In the preceding article, I described the conditions for travel by bicycle in Argentina as of my own trip in June and July 2015, and some of the factors -- notably including the effects of the ongoing Argentine financial crisis -- that influence the choice of equipment for bicycle touring in Argentina.
In this follow-up article, I'll talk about what this means in terms of my specific recommendations for choices of bicycle components and accessories for independent travel in Argentina, based primarily on what consumables and replacement parts are and aren't readily available.
You are unlikely, of course, to buy a bike just for one trip, or to base your choice of a bike and components solely on conditions in one country. (Although you might change some components depending on where you are going.) For general advice about how to choose a bike for touring, see my FAQ on Buying a Touring Bicycle. For issues that are common to bictycle travel around the world (but might be different from travel in your home country), see my FAQ on International Bicycle Travel and my FAQ on Riding Skills for Bicycle Travel. But for reasons discussed in my preceding article on Bicycle Touring in Argentina, some aspects of bicycle touring in Argentina, especially choices of bicycles, components, and gear in a country, are like those that are appropriate in many other parts of the world with much worse infrastructure than Argentina. So people planning to travel by bicycle anywhere outside the First World might find these issues relevant, and these recommendations worth at least considering.Continue reading "Bicycle components for touring in Argentina"
Tuesday, 29 September 2015
Bicycle touring in Argentina
My partner and I spent June and July of 2015 (southern hemisphere winter) bicycling across Argentina, west to east, from Mendoza to Buenos Aires.
tl;dr summary: We had a good trip, and we would recommend it and do it again ourselves (with some different preparations and expectations). But travelling independently by bicycle in Argentina was harder than we expected. We worked at preparing, but more knowledge of bicycling conditions in the parts of Argentina where we were going, and different preparations and expectations, would have made for a better trip.
Argentina is not, by any definition, a Third World country. But the density and pattern of settlement, character of the infrastructure, and some of the consequences of the ongoing Argentine national financial crisis mean that you need to prepare for an independent bicycle journey in Argentina -- even in the more densely populated flatlands of the central and eastern pampas -- more the way you would for a bike tour in the Third World:
- Be prepared to share any paved road, even the smallest paved rural road, with heavy (although generally extremely well-behaved) long-distance tandem trucks and at least some buses. If that's not your cup of tea, be prepared to ride mainly on dirt roads. Don't expect shoulders to be paved or rideable, or lanes to be wide enough for motor vehicles to be able to pass a bicyclist within the same lane. Bring tires that can handle the mats of thorns that are a ubiquitous part of the groundcover on and along dirt roads and immediately alongside the travel lanes of paved roads in some areas we passed through.
- The infrastructure for travel and for bicycling in Argentina is generally excellent, but you can't rely on it. There's often no way to be certain whether you will find lodging in a town until you get there, and it can be more than a day's ride between lodging, even on the pampas. Camping, including polite wild camping, is widely practiced and universally accepted. But you need to be prepared to wild camp in locations with no services. At times -- even on the pampas, and not just in mountainous or desert areas or in Patagonia -- you will need to carry enough food and water to ride all day, camp for the night, and ride on the next day before you get to any place where food, water, or fuel for your camp stove are available.
- There are bike shops or general stores in even the smallest towns where some tubes and other spare parts for the sorts of bicycles that are used locally are usually available. But except for certain of the most basic and lowest-quality consumables, you can't count on finding any particular item. It's impossible for you or anyone else, or even a local bike shop, to special order parts, accessories, or anything else by mail from outside Argentina. If what you want isn't already stocked by a dealer or distributor in Argentina, then it's not available in Argentina, period. Bring the most reliable equipment you can, and think carefully about what components and spares to bring in light of what types of bikes and components are in local use.
Most of we had found about bicycle touring in Argentina, including most of the trip reports on CrazyGuyOnABike.com, related to bicycling in southern and western Argentina: Patagonia and the Andes.
Argentina covers a lot of ground, however, with more diversity of terrain and climate than all but a handful of other countries. We weren't planning an "expedition" through the most thinly-settled deserts, mountains, or areas of most extreme wind, heat, and/or cold. We weren't sure how much of the information we found about bicycle trekking in Patagonia and the Andes would apply to bicycle touring on the pampas, where the terrain is level (except for the Central Sierras west of Córdoba, which we planned from the start to cross by bus), towns are much closer together, and the climate at any season is much milder.
I hope that other people thinking about bicycle travel in Argentina, especially on the pampas and in other parts of the country north of Patagonia and east of the Andes, will find this article useful in deciding whether to take such a trip (which I highly recommend) and in planning and preparing for it.
Even if you aren't a bicycle tourist, you may find parts of this article useful in thinking about how something like the ongoing Argentine financial crisis can affect travel in complex and unexpected ways, and how that might apply to travel in other countries in crisis such as Greece.
To put our experience with this bike trip in context, we had visited Argentina several times, but never before with bicycles. Our first visit was in was in late 2002 (just after the start of the continuing financial crisis), and our last previous visit was in 2007, when we rented an apartment in Buenos Aires for two months and spent another month exploring northwestern Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile before heading back east to Brazil and on around the world.
We'd enjoyed our time in Argentina, and wanted to see more and different parts of the country, especially the farming and ranching regions that drive the economy and shape the national identity and culture. There's a lot to explore in Argentina: It's the 8th largest country in the world -- larger than any country in Africa, to put it in some sort of perspective. Without bicycles, we'd seen the places in between the big cities and major tourist destinations only through the windows of planes, trains, and (mostly) buses. We figured that travelling by bicycle would be a great way to get off the tourist track and immerse ourselves in this other Argentina -- and it was. We also thought that having bicycled across the North American grain and livestock belt would give us a good basis for interpreting and comparing what was different about the grasslands and small-town farm and ranch country of Argentina and the USA -- and it did.
We've taken long trips by bicycle on paved roads and off-road paths in North America and Europe, and rented bikes locally in many other parts of the world. A trip by bicycle across the pampas (the flattest and easiest part of Argentina in which to travel) seemed like it would be a relatively easy introduction to bicycle travel outside North America and Europe. We already had some sense of the way things work in Argentina, one of us (my partner) already spoke functional Spanish and we could both read it a bit (it got better during the trip: bicycle travel improved our Spanish more than any of our previous attempts at immersive language learning), and Argentina is one of the wealthiest countries, with some of the best roads and other infrastructure, in South America or anywhere outside the First World.
So how did it go, and what did we find that we hadn't anticipated and that influenced our experience?Continue reading "Bicycle touring in Argentina"
Friday, 25 September 2015
The Amazing Race 27, Episode 1
Venice, CA (USA) - Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
One of the reasons I love to fly is the view from the air. You can learn a lot from an airplane window that you can't readily discern from the ground. The first military uses of balloons and airplanes were for reconnaissance, not transportation, and the first major commercial use of flying drones is turning out to be aerial photography. I try to get a window seat on any flight, and I'm the passenger who ignores the flight attendants when they ask everyone to pull down the blinds so other passengers can watch movies or play video games.
I don't mind being told in advance of potentially interesting sites that I might miss if I didn't know when, where, or what to look for. But the sights that most reward the effort of going to distant places are typically those that change the way I see the world precisely because they are visions of things I didn't know to expect and perhaps didn't even know existed.
I needed new eyeglasses recently, and had to explain to a new optometrist why I don't like "progressive" multi-focal glasses: They put too small a portion of the visual field in focus at any given distance. I prefer bifocals, which have a wider field of focus. "With progressive lenses, I can only see a small area around what I'm focusing on. It's important to me to be able to see things that I'm not already looking at," I told the optometrist.
The high point of this first leg of The Amazing Race 27 was a helicopter ride over Rio de Janeiro. The reality-TV travellers were told that after their sightseeing flight each pair of contestants would have to answer a question about "what they had seen".
The actual question turned out to be trivially easy. But before and during their helicopter rides, some of the racers were very worried about how they would know what it was they were supposed to see, when they hadn't been told in advance what to look at.
In this, the racers were like many real world travelers who place a priority on seeing and doing what someone else has told them that they ought to see and do. Some travellers feel lost and confused when they don't have a guide, or when they are in a place that's not mentioned in their guidebook or about which there is little or no information on the Internet. That's not because they will actually get lost, but because they simply don't know what to do.
To travellers who rely on guides or guidebooks to tell them what's significant, any unexpected event or sensation that captures their attention and diverts it from what they came to see can be perceived as an interruption, like a sound in a theater that distracts you from what's happening on stage. In real-world travel, however, audience and stage, figure and ground, or foreground and background are in the eye and mind of the beholder.
The racers were supposed to notice and remember the statue of Cristo Redentor ("Christ the Redemer") on the summit of Corcovado mountain. It's a memorable icon of Rio, to be sure. There's more of Rio to see from the air, however, than first meets the eye of someone focused on "monuments".
What Jin and Ernest notice first about the view of the city are the "favelas": neighborhoods of self-built houses where more than a million Cariocas live. The favelas are especially conspicuous from the air, as viewers of the race saw in some helicopter shots similar to these, because they occupy most of the high ground (which is disfavored by wealthier people because of its vulnerability to landslides).
Favelas are sometimes erroneously described as "shantytowns". From the air, it was clear that this isn't accurate. While homes in some favelas are mainly tents or shacks made of plastic sheeting and cardboard, brick and concrete houses, sometimes two or three stories high, predominate in other favelas. Informal housing isn't just a euphemism: it better describes what actually distinguishes favelas from "formal" settlements in wealthier parts of the city.
Jin and Ernest aren't alone in seeing similarities between the geographic segregation of rich and poor in Rio and back home in the USA. There's an extensive political, social, and academic literature comparing the geographies of wealth and poverty -- often visible from the air, as I and others have noticed before -- in the polarized and segregated big cities of Brazil, the USA, and South Africa in particular.
Friday, 11 September 2015
Air travel predictions come true: luggage locks and interline ticketing
Two predictions I made a decade or longer ago have come true this week, one about the farcically insecure "TSA-approved" luggage locks, and the other marking a much more significant milestone in the anti-consumer balkanization of the airline industry.
(1) Master keys for TSA-approved "Travel Sentry" luggage locks made public.
Back in 2003, when it first became public that the TSA would be cooperating in a "key escrow" system in which air travellers would only be allowed to use locks on their luggage if those locks were certified as being openable with one of a small set of master keys that would be provided to every TSA checked- baggage "screener", I wrote as follows:
Whatever its purposes, such a key or code escrow program is also idiotic and insecure: the tools or codes needed to open the special locks will be available to thieves (even those thieves who aren't also TSA employees) almost as soon as the master keys and opening instructions are disseminated to tens of thousands of TSA inspectors.
Who knows how quickly thieves (other than TSA screeners, airline staff, and contractors, who have repeatedly been caught pilfering valuables from checked luggage) got hold of "Travel Sentry" master keys or copies.
But now photos and an official guide to each of the master keys have been made public. From the photos (making working keys from photos is easier than you might think), control files have been created, made public, and demonstrated to produce working plastic master keys using an entry-level 3D printer.
And if you really want to tweak the TSA, you can even get a T-shirt depicting a full set of TSA master keys.
The master keys can't readily be changed, since more than 10 million locks a year, each made to be opened by one of these seven keys, have been sold since 2003 -- an installed base of close to a billion dollars worth of locks at retail prices.
For what it's worth, the "Travel Sentry" industry consortium that has the exclusive deal with the TSA for locks that can be opened with these master keys also advertises that it has provided the same set of master keys to aviation "security" agencies at airports in South Korea, Israel, Canada, Finland, and Austria.
As I pointed out when I first wrote about the inherent insecurity of this "key escrow" system, the real protection for checked airline luggage is not lock technology but the law of strict liability for common carriers of cargo, including checked luggage:
Currently, the TSA claims that it isn't liable to passengers for damage to locks or luggage when it breaks into bags. That's generally true, but that doesn't mean passengers are out of luck, or that the TSA isn't liable to the airlines.
It works like this: In most cases it's the airline, not the TSA, who accepts the bags from the passenger and is responsible for them until they are returned to the passenger in good condition. Passengers whose bags are damaged, or locks broken, should pursue their claims with the airline, in small claims court if necessary, even if the airline says that it isn't responsible because the damage was done by the TSA.
If a passenger consigns their bag to the airline, and receives it back damaged, the airline is liable to the passenger. Whether the airlines can collect from the TSA in such cases remains to be litigated, but but that's not the passengers' problem, and doesn't affect the liability of the airlines to passengers for the damage.
That advice remains true, and equally important, today.
(2) Major airlines in rival "alliances" ending interline ticketing agreements.
Over the last year major airlines have begun taking drastic measures to restrict the ability of travellers to get through interline tickets, even if they somehow figure out ... that they can do better by combining flights from several, not necessarily "allied" airlines, rather than limiting themselves to just one airline or even just one alliance....
The likelihood is that within a few years the current globally integrated ticketing system will be replaced with a significantly balkanized one, in which "alliances" or marketing consortia issue incompatible tickets.... On the cutting edge of this trend, Continental Airlines took the first step a year ago by terminating more than 50 of its interline agreements...
The unwinding of the interline ticketing system began with the termination of most of the agreements between large airlines and smaller ones. (Which is bad, as I explained at the time, and tantamount to "redlining" of places deemed peripheral by wealthy airlines.
The end game will be the breakdown of interline agreements between large, wealthy members of rival global airline alliances -- beginning with the announcement yesterday that American (Oneworld) and Delta (Skyteam) are ending their decades-old interline ticketing (and, I presume, baggage) agreements on 15 September 2015.
American claims that customers won't suffer, even when there are problems: "We have more ability to re-route our customers during operational disruption than any other airline in the world." But that's a lie: An airline with interline agreements with all of its major competitors has far more ability to re-route customers than an airline that has limited its options to the members of a single alliance (most of the other members of which probably operate in other regions of the world).
When something goes wrong, the most important and valuable interline agreements for travellers are those between direct competitors, as I pointed out when this issue first emerged:
Even passengers who don't plan to fly on multiple airlines benefit from interline ticketing agreements: without such an agreement in place, one airline can't "endorse" its tickets to another airline in the event of a flight cancellation, delay, missed connection, or overbooking.
As more and more alliances coordinate their schedules to reduce duplication between alliance members airlines' route systems, it becomes more and more likely that the only alternate flight, if yours is cancelled, will be on a competing alliance. The result is to substantially reduce the likelihood that stranded passengers will be accommodated on the next available flight, even if it is operated by a competing airline (as is, obviously, in the passengers' interest) and increase the likelihood that they will be forced to wait for their original airline's (or one of its partners') next flight, as is obviously in the airlines' interest (since it costs an airline less to transport passengers on its own flight than to pay another airline to transport them).
There's more here on what happens when a flight is cancelled, diverted, or delayed. As I note in that article, and as the discussion above should help make clear, what's possible depends on which issued the ticket (the "validating carrier") and on with which other airlines it has interline agreements.
But the issuing airline is one of the details of actual tickets that are often missing from e-ticket confirmations, and interline agreement tables are a part of the tariff that is not usually made available to ticket purchasers. These are some of the reasons why it's important for the US Department of Transportation, and its counterparts in other countries, to enforce the requirements that airlines provide each ticket purchaser with a complete copy of their ticket and make the entirety of their tariff publicly available.
Wednesday, 22 July 2015
SF Bicycle Coalition proposes to eliminate voting membership
The Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is proposing to amend the SFBC's Bylaws to abolish voting membership in the organization, and transfer all decision-making authority for the SFBC to itself as a "self-perpetuating" board. If the proposed amendments to the Bylaws are approved, the current members of the Board will elect their successors, and members will lose all of their rights to any say in SFBC decisions or any transparency or oversight over Board or organization meetings, decisions, finances, etc. According to the proposed new Bylaws:
This corporation shall have no voting members...
All powers and activities of this corporation shall be exercised and managed by the Board of Directors of this corporation....
Directors shall be elected by a majority vote of the Directors.
The voting is going on now through July 31st. I strongly urge all SFBC members -- especially those concerned about organizational democracy or the SFBC's advocacy goals -- to click here now and vote "NO".
SaveSFbike.org, a new ad hoc organization of SFBC members formed in response to the Board proposal, has published an excellent analysis of the proposed Bylaws changes, what they do and don't mean, and why it's important to vote "NO". For the record, I had absolutely no role in creating this ad hoc group or producing its Web site, which I learned about only after the Web site had launched. But I wholeheartedly endorse its message, and urge my bicycling friends in San Francisco to read it and spread the word to everyone they know in SF.
Read more details below, and see the comments for updates.Continue reading "SF Bicycle Coalition proposes to eliminate voting membership"
Thursday, 9 July 2015
The news from Las Rosas
It's mid-summer in the northern hemisphere, mid-winter where I'm currently travelling in Argentina. Today I'm in Las Rosas in the province of Santa Fe, a town unlikely to be mentioned in any guidebook although large enough to have at least three hotels for local business visitors. It's the sort of place that a tourist would be unlikely to seek out, but that you find yourself in when you are travelling by bicycle -- the counterpart of a small town in the "flyover states" in the USA (such as those I passed through while bicycling across Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan in 2013).
In the last month, travelling slowly and stopping often, we've ridden about a thousand kilometers and crossed a little more than half the width of Argentina from Mendoza in the west towards Buenos Aires in the east.
It's been physically harder than we expected, but rewarding. I'll have a detailed report on bicycle touring in Argentina after our trip, for anyone considering travel by bicycle here. And I'll have more about travel in Argentina in my columns about the next season of The Amazing Race, currently being filmed, part of which took place in Argentina.
One of the best things about travelling by bicycle is that except on a few established routes, it forces you off the tourist track. I can't go far enough in a day on a bicycle loaded with 20 kg of camping gear, water, etc. to rush from one tourist highlight to another. Most of the time on a bicycle tour is spent in the places in between, where tourists haven't worn out our welcome or come to be treated as part of an industry rather than as visitors, guests, and friends.
I've spent several months in Buenos Aires on previous trips, but that gives about as accurate a picture of life in the Argentine provinces as time as a tourist in New York City does of life in Lake Wobegon or the rest of the USA.
In more than a month, we haven't met anyone else travelling by bicycle, although many people use bicycles for local transportation and/or recreation. We've gone weeks without seeing another tourist or hearing anyone else speaking English. This is a cosmopolitan and connected country, but we've been in a city of almost 100,000 people where the arrival of two tourists from the USA on bicycles was unusual enough to get us greeted by the mayor (we met by chance at the installation of a new mural in the town park) and featured on local TV. We've stayed in hotels catering to local business travellers that have never before had a tourist or anyone from the USA as a guest, much less anyone travelling by bicycle.
We were spotted at the edge of the smaller town where we ate lunch yesterday by some 12-year-old boys on BMX bikes, half a dozen of whom escorted us to the one lunch counter in town (at the soccer club, of course), popping wheelies along the way. They are studying English in school, but had never met a foreigner or talked with a native speaker of English. "Do they speak English in the USA?", the boldest of them asked us in Spanish.
Today it's the 9th of July -- Argentina's independence day and a national holiday. Cyclists we met on our way into town and while looking for a hotel insisted that we join them at the town plaza, where the local recreational cycling club, "Grupo Pamperos", (with 80 members, 30 of them women) is holding a charity ride of circuits around the plaza to raise money for the volunteer fire department. We're looking forward to mate and conversation while we watch the ride and the other festivities.
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Expert critique of EU travel surveillance and profiling plans
Independent legal experts commissioned by the Council of Europe (COE) to assess proposals for surveillance and profiling of air travellers throughout the European Union have returned a detailed and perceptive critique of the proposed EU directive on government access to, and use of, Passenger Name Record (PNR) data from airline reservations.
Before the revelations by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers about dragnet surveillance of telephone and Internet communications, few people appreciated the nature of the threat to freedom posed by government acquisition and use of PNR data for dragnet travel surveillance.
The expert report to the Council of Europe marks a breakthrough in the "post-Snowden" understanding of the nature and significance of government demands for PNR data. The report reframes the PNR debate from being an issue of privacy and data protection to being part of a larger debate about suspicionless surveillance and pre-crime profiling. The report also focuses the attention of European citizens, travellers, and policy-makers on the decisions made (in whole or in part) on the basis of PNR data: decisions to subject travellers to search, interrogation, or the total denial of transportation ("no-fly" orders).
The report specifically cites the Kafkaesque case of Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim as an example of the way that decisions made on such a basis tend to evade judicial review or effective redress.
The PNR directive under consideration by the European Union would require each EU member to establish a Passenger Analysis Unit (PAU), if it doesn't already have one. These PAUs would function as new national surveillance and pre-crime policing agencies. Each PAU would be required to obtain PNR data for all air travellers on flights subject to its jurisdiction, "analyze" this data (i.e. carry out algorithmic pre-crime profiling of air travellers using PNR data as one of its inputs) and share the raw PNR data with its counterparts throughout the EU.
The United Kingdom already has such a Passenger Analysis Unit. It's not clear which, if any, other EU members already have such units, although staff of the US Department of Homeland Security, based in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, already perform similar functions as "advisors" making "recommendations" to their European counterparts regarding the treatment of European travellers, based on US profiling of PNRs and other travel history and surveillance data.
The COE expert report on Passenger Name Records, Data Mining & Data Protection was commissioned by the COE Directorate General Human Rights and Rule of Law, and prepared by Douwe Korff (Emeritus Professor of International Law at London Metropolitan University, Associate at the Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford, and currently Visiting Fellow at Yale University in the USA) and Marie Georges (independent expert formerly on the staff of the French national data protection authority, CNIL). The report was presented and discussed at a meeting today of the "Consultative Committee of the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data (T-PD)".
According to the introduction to the report:
Much has been said and written about Passenger Name Records (PNR) in the last decade and a half. When we were asked to write a short report for the Consultative Committee about PNR, "in the wider contexts", we therefore thought we could confine ourselves to a relatively straightforward overview of the literature and arguments.
However, the task turned out to be more complex than anticipated. In particular, the context has changed as a result of the Snowden revelations. Much of what was said and written about PNR before his exposés had looked at the issues narrowly, as only related to the "identification" of "known or [clearly 'identified'] suspected terrorists" (and perhaps other major international criminals). However, the most recent details of what US and European authorities are doing, or plan to do, with PNR data show that they are part of the global surveillance operations we now know about.
More specifically, it became clear to us that there is a (partly deliberate?) semantic confusion about this "identification"; that the whole surveillance schemes are not only to do with finding previously-identified individuals, but also (and perhaps even mainly) with “mining” the vast amounts of disparate data to create "profiles" that are used to single out from the vast data stores people "identified" as statistically more likely to be (or even to become?) a terrorist (or other serious criminal), or to be "involved" in some way in terrorism or major crime. That is a different kind of "identification" from the previous one, as we discuss in this report.
We show this relatively recent (although predicted) development with reference to the most recent developments in the USA, which we believe provide the model for what is being planned (or perhaps already begun to be implemented) also in Europe. In the USA, PNR data are now expressly permitted to be added to and combined with other data, to create the kinds of profiles just mentioned -- and our analysis of Article 4 of the proposed EU PNR Directive shows that, on a close reading, exactly the same will be allowed in the EU if the proposal is adopted....
Yet it is obvious (indeed, even from the information about PNR use that we describe) that these are used not only to “identify” known terrorists or people identified as suspects in the traditional sense, but that these data mountains are also being “mined” to label people as “suspected terrorist” on the basis of profiles and algorithms. We believe that that in fact is the more insidious aspect of the operations.
The report develops these key points about government access to and use of PNR data as a suspicionless dragnet surveillance system and as part of predictive pre-crime policing (outside of normal mechanisms for penal sanctions or for review and redress for police action) in detail.
In addition, the report endorses and highlights the point I have been making for many years that because most PNR data for flights worldwide is hosted by, and communicated through, reservation databases accessible from the USA and worldwide without purpose or geographic access limitations or access logs, the USA and other governments can already obtain and use this data, entirely bypassing putative controls on access to PNRs directly from airlines.
Continue reading "Expert critique of EU travel surveillance and profiling plans"
"Europe" must also examine the highly credible claims by Edward Hasbrouck ... that the USA has been systematically violating previous agreements, and is still systematically by-passing European data protection law, by accessing the CRSs used in global airline reservation systems hosted in the USA to obtain full PNR data on most flights, including most European flights (including even entirely intra-European ones), outside of any international agreements....
[W]e believe that the supposed safeguards against such further -- dangerous -- uses of the data are weak and effectively meaningless, both in their own terms and because, as Edward Hasbrouck has shown, the USA can in any case obtain access to essentially all (full) PNRs, through the Computerized Reservation Systems used by all the main airlines, as described next.
Monday, 22 June 2015
American Airlines claims it doesn't have to give you a ticket or tell you the fare for your trip
Closely related to airlines' efforts to escape their obligations as common carriers and to replace ticket pricing based on a published tariff with personalized pricing are their moves to escape their legal duty to provide each ticket purchaser with a "ticket".
In the days of paper tickets, there was no ambiguity as to whether the airline had given you a ticket when it confirmed your reservations. Airlines' own individual tariffs as well as IATA standards for interline ticketing specified the format of the ticket, with a separate "coupon" for each flight, and the information required to be included on it. Blank ticket stock ("accountable documents") was individually numbered and controlled, and contained physical security features like those on banknotes (paper money). Without the original ticket, you couldn't fly.
Despite the transition from paper tickets to electronic tickets, airlines continue to generate an essentially identical "virtual coupon record" (VCR) within the airline's reservation system for each ticket purchase, containing exactly the same information as used to be included on the paper ticket. All major airlines' tariffs define the VCR as being the "ticket" for all legal purposes.
American Airlines' International General Rules, for example, define "ticket" as follows (all caps as in the original, which is copied from the Sabre CRS in which the character set includes only capital letters):
TICKET MEANS THE "PASSENGER TICKET AND BAGGAGE CHECK," INCLUDING ALL FLIGHT, PASSENGER AND OTHER COUPONS THEREIN, ISSUED BY CARRIER, WHICH PROVIDE FOR THE CARRIAGE OF THE PASSENGER AND HIS BAGGAGE.
The problem is that while the airline has this record of the details of the ticket, the ticket purchaser no longer does. US Federal regulations (14 CFR 399.83) continue to require airlines to provide each ticket purchaser with a ticket, but that requirement has come to be almost universally ignored. Typical e-ticket confirmation notices contain only a small fraction of the information contained in the ticket.
Why does this matter? The airline can, and will, enforce the rules of the fare (as specified in the ticket) against the traveller. But without a ticket, and the information contained on it, a traveller has no way of knowing which provisions of the tariff apply, and thus cannot enforce those terms against the airline. And the airline, of course, has no reason to tell the traveller about information on the ticket that might benefit the traveller in a dispute with the airline.
As I said in comments I filed with the US Department of Transportation in 2010,
In the case of electronic tickets, industry standards and airlines' conditions of carriage define the “ticket” to consist of the “Virtual Coupon Record” (VCR), which contains all of the information previously included on paper tickets. But while a few airlines routinely provide purchasers with complete VCR images, and some others do so on request, many do not. [Fewer do in 2015 than did so when I filed these comments in 2010. - EH]
A complete ticket (or the VCR which constitutes the complete e-ticket) includes a variety of information which is important to purchasers but often omitted from e-mail confirmations:
- The validating carrier, which may be the transporting carrier, a codeshare partner, or an entirely different airline in the case of interline or offline ticketing, and which may be vital to know in the case of changes, refund claims, airline bankruptcy, etc.;
- The date and place of issue, which may determine when a ticket must be presented for refund or exchange, or the jurisdiction of claims related to the ticket;
- The indication (in industry standards, by an "X" or "O" for each segment), of which transfer points are allowable stopovers and which are only connection points;
- The fare calculation, including the fare basis for each segment, which are essential to determining the refund value of a partially used ticket, or the allowable routings and other governing provisions of the applicable tariff in case of cancellations or changes;
- The breakdown of taxes and fees, which is essential to determining which of the “taxes and fees” are imposed by and passed on to governments, and from which agencies of which governments to seek refunds of what amounts in the case of user fees that may be refundable if tickets aren't used, and which fees are imposed by and retained by the airline, and should properly be considered part of the fare;
- The "not valid before" and "not valid after" dates for each segment;
- The free baggage allowance for each segment (note that this is already part of each industry-standard ticket, and allows specifying different allowances for each segment).
Where this information is held by the airline, and specifies the details of the contract between the airline and the ticket purchaser, there are good reasons to require the airline to furnish a copy of this information to each ticket purchaser. 14 CFR 399.83 should be retained and should be enforced.
I have been unable to find any record of enforcement action by the DOT against any of the airlines that have been violating DOT regulations by failing to provide complete tickets.
The issue is now before the DOT, however, as a result of a formal complaint against American Airlines (AA) by frequent flyer Mike Borsetti. Mr. Borsetti was overcharged by AA for several tickets, including charges for alleged "taxes" that exceeded the taxes actually imposed by governments. Aside form the overcharging and the misrepresentation of taxes, Mr. Borsetti's complaint explicitly raises the issue of AA's violation of 14 CFR 399.83. Without the fare calculation and tax breakdown contained in the tickets, Mr. Borsetti is still unable to tell exactly how much he was overcharged, or how much of a refund he is due.
In its answer to this complaint, AA makes no attempt to argue that it ever provided Mr. Borsetti with a ticket, as required by the applicable Federal regulations. Instead, it essentially argues that the rule requiring the airline to provide a ticket is obsolete and should be ignored by the DOT -- even though the transition from paper tickets held by the passenger to e-tickets held by airlines within their computer systems has made it more, not less, important, to enforce the requirement that each ticket purchaser receive a complete copy of their ticket.
I've filed comments with the DOT in support of Mr. Borsetti, explaining why it's important for the DOT to enforce this provision of its regulations and impose sanctions on AA. Any member of the public (that's you!) can file comments by clicking here. You can type a message in the form, or attach a text, word processor, or PDF file, and can give your name or comment anonymously.
You can read all of the comments others have submitted here.
Most regulatory proceedings like this draw no public comment at all, so even brief comments will be an important show of support. Tell the DOT that if the airline creates a ticket for you within its computer system (specifying in detail the terms of the contract by which you are bound, and by which the airline should also be bound), you are entitled to have a copy of it.
Sunday, 21 June 2015
FCC finally takes note of robocall/SMS terms of service -- 6 years late
Six years ago, American Express changed its terms of service to require cardholders to give AmEx permission to robocall or text-message them "at any telephone number … you provide to us or from which you place a call to us, or any telephone number at which we reasonably believe we may reach you."
When I declined to agree to these proposed new terms, AmEx cancelled my card and closed the account I had held with them for twenty years. Despite some publicity including a story in the New York Times prompted by my initial article, the story failed to get traction, and the new AmEx terms of service went into effect.
Other companies adopted similar terms of service, including almost all of the largest credit-card issuers. I reported on similar terms of service for eBay and PayPal (then part of the same company) in 2012.
Fast forward a few years to the present, and eBay's impending spinoff of Paypal as (once again) a separate company has drawn renewed scrutiny to PayPal's terms of service.
A story earlier this month by Bob Sullivan on Credit.com, citing my earlier reports, finally got the attention first of more consumer advocates and then of the FCC. In response, the head of the FCC's enforcement bureau has sent a letter to PayPal stating that:
FCC requirements directly prohibit requiring a consumer to consent to receive autodialed or prerecorded telemarketing or advertising calls as a condition of purchasing any property, good, or service, and the company must give consumers notice of their right to refuse to give such consent. PayPal's amended User Agreement does not give consumers notice of their right to refuse consent to calls that require consumer consent from PayPal, its affiliates, and its service providers. If PayPal fails to include this required notice and/or fails to allow its users to refuse such consent, we are concerned that consent is in fact a condition of purchase of PayPal’s service and thus violates the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and could subject PayPal, its affiliates, and its service providers to penalties of up to $16,000 per call or text message.
Second, we direct your attention to the requirement that the written agreement must identify the specific telephone number(s) to which the consenting consumer gives his or her consent to be called or texted. A blanket User Agreement that purports to apply to 'any telephone number that [consumers] have provided us or that we have otherwise obtained' does not meet the level of specificity required by law. Many consumers have more than one telephone line. Consumers have the right to choose on which line(s) they wish to receive telemarketing or advertising calls, if they elect to receive such calls at all.
Finally, the Commission has ruled that should any question about the consent arise, the seller will bear the burden of demonstrating that a clear and conspicuous disclosure was provided and that unambiguous consent was obtained. We direct your attention to this statement because it underscores the importance of complying with federal law when structuring your agreements to collect the prior express written consent of consumers.
All well and good, if a few years too late. The real question will be whether the FCC follows up with similar letters to the other companies, including all of the major credit card issuers, with similar terms of service, and what enforcement action the FCC takes against those companies that have been enforcing such terms of service, placing robocalls, and sending text messages on the basis of these terms for years.
I'm working on a series of requests to "opt out" of any consent to robocalling or text messaging that may have been deemed to have been implied by my use of credit cards or other services such as eBay and PayPal with terms of service like this. It may take a few months, but I'll let you know how it goes.
[Update: Bob Sullivan reports that PayPal has responded to the FCC by changing its terms of service and adding an "opt-out" link for robocalls and SMS spam. That still leaves unanswered what, if any, action will be taken by the FCC against other companies with similar terms.]
Tuesday, 26 May 2015
Senators and travel companies question airlines' pricing practices
It seems odd to me that the movement for "net neutrality" has led to demands for the US government to protect consumers against discriminatory and/or predatory practices by requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate as common carriers of data packets, at the same time that traditional common carriers of people and goods, starting with airlines, are trying to get the government to release them from their longstanding obligations to act as common carriers -- and are taking action to repudiate or ignore those obligations, without waiting for changes in the law.
As discussed below, members of Congress have begun to take an interest in some aspects of this issue, and airlines' plans are running into opposition from competing sectors of the travel industry. But a larger consumer movement is needed to get the US government to maintain and enforce the longstanding and still necessary consumer-protection rules that require airlines licensed as such by the US government to continue to act as common carriers.
What does this mean, why does it matter to travellers, and what is being, or can be, done about it?Continue reading "Senators and travel companies question airlines' pricing practices"