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If you're a US citizen and you'll be traveling overseas during the US 2012 election, have you yet registered to vote by absentee ballot?
The big election date is Tuesday, November 6th, and you'd better get cracking if you don't want to lose the chance to tick the box you like best.
Even if your home isn't in a battleground state, House and Senate seats are up for grabs, so every vote counts. Fortunately, it only takes five minutes to fill out the forms online and mail them off!
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It is an iron-clad rule in the airline industry that whatever Congress touches, it breaks. The best example is the tarmac delay law, which went from being predictably disastrous to being actually disastrous, and which Congress - at the behest of the shrill busybodies from Flyers Rights - tried to expand and make into permanent law. But let's not forget the U.S. government's plan to fine foreign tourists in order to increase tourism, which was actually a plan to fine foreign tourists so Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada could use their money to promote "Vegas-style tourism."
And let's also not forget Congress's repeated forays into a wide array of airline policies that they don't quite understand but that they're more than happy to bluster about: baggage fee structures, safety regulations, opaque fees, etc.
And so we come to today's Congressional brainstorm. It's being doneof courseFor The Children.
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Tarmac delay laws have been a predictable disaster. As we explained at painful and indignant length in the leadup to the new rules, it makes no sense to incentivize airlines not to have public relations nightmares, since as companies trying to make money they already have that incentive.
Long tarmac delays happen because airplanes have to wait in line to take off, and if you return to the gate you lose your place in line and get stuck on the ground indefinitely. So pilots gamble on staying in line and riding out delays rather than returning to their gates. Creating rules that would bankrupt airlines for making those gambleswhich is what tarmac delay fines dowould only lead to more cancellations and longer delays, we said.
So obvious were these scenarios that bureacrats could only defend the rules by promising airlines that regulators would "rarely impose the maximum penalties." Pause for a second and let that sink in. When pushed on how they were passing a bunch of really counterproductive new rules, bureaucrats resorted to telling airlines to have faith that the rules wouldn't get enforced. Since that's really stupidairlines aren't going to rely on the good will of a person whose job it is to fine themcancellations and longer delays immediately spiked. And now, because the groups who push regulations are apparently filled with shrill, insufferable busy bodies who have nothing better to do than ruin travel for the rest of us, it's happening all over again.
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At this point we’re all pretty much accustomed to those pesky airline baggage fees, but that doesn't me we have to accept them. In the past, Uncle Sam has wanted to stick his nose into airline business regarding these charges, but it looks like the latest idea might actually be something that we can totally support.
The Department of Transportation isn’t really complaining about airline baggage fees—although deep down we sure they hate them too—but they are sick of the fees when your baggage doesn’t even arrive as promised. They’re proposing that the airlines refund your baggage fee if your roller, duffel, or steamer trunk doesn’t arrive at the baggage belt when you do.
We try not to get too wrapped up in politics over here, because we know that next to more “adult” topics, the internet is all about people expressing their thoughts and opinions when it comes to the highs and lows of government. However, we had to share a little bit of information regarding the cost of future airfare.
Here in the United States it looks like the latest federal budget might just hit travelers where it hurts the most—right in the wallet. Those dreaded “passenger facility charges” would head upwards by a few bucks. Right now they’re $4.50 per flight, but if the new budget goes through they’d increase to $7.
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For better or worse, last night was a tidal wave election, with consequences that are going to be felt pretty much everywhere. We do our best to keep travel politics to an absolute minimum here, both because it's not as much fun as sex travel or celebrity travel or even green travel, and because it rarely changes based on who's in charge, so who cares. But elections matter, and so here are the essentials of what you need to be on the lookout for in next session's Congress.
The most immediate and noticeable impact will be on the airline industry. Since 2007, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been chaired by regulation-happy Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar. He in turn used that position to pretty much constantly screw things up and/or waste folks' time. Last night he lost.
The United Nations wants to take the lead in making contact with ET, and so they're already appointing the people who'll do it. Right now it's a Malaysian astrophysicist named Mazlan Othman, but in the future who knows whom they'll choose. Not that it really matters. There are a lot of ins and outs of international geopolitics, but on an issue as huge as interstellar contact the UN is going to be mostly irrelevant. Contact isn't going to be done by committee, and honestly that's probably a good thing. We don't really want this guy helping to decide who explains the last 200 years of human history to a hyper-intelligent spacefaring race.
This isn't strictly travel-related, although, given how quickly space tourism is heating up, the UN's appointment of a "space ambassador" might end up being more than a punchline. In the meantime we're going to spend a while treating it as a punchline on account of how it's kind of a punchline. And stupid.
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Tourism board cutbacks are becoming something of a trend, as the economic crunch cascades across different parts of the public and private sectors. The news from last week is that Michigan is ending their Pure Michigan campaign, which was supposed to be a long-term effort aimed at rebranding the state, because they're out of money. We were skeptical about this project from the get-go, thinking that the money might be better spent on actually making the state pure rather than telling people it is. But that's not not why they're stopping their campaign. They're cutting back because they were unable to get money for their travel advertising the way some other boards have, by fining tourists or shaking down corporations.
The campaign for the Texas governorship now involves whether the candidates can maintain the state's tourism budget by cutting services elsewhere or raising taxes, because that's what powerful hotel and restaurant lobbies want. Those lobbies have actually been doing quite the job finding creative ways of taking money from Peter to pay for Paul's tourism ads.
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You've watched us move on tarmac regulations from reserved enthusiasm through deep skepticism to outright disdain. We've been predicting unintended consequences for months, and we elevated our forecast to "complete crapshow" last May when we had our first personal brush with Congress's new three hour rule, which imposes on airlines $27,500 per passenger left on the tarmac over three hours.
Now that we've had another run-in with the law, we can report very graphically on how these kind of misguided regulations play out. Specifically, they play out with us spending a night at JFK, and creating a total security breakdown along the way.
Good news and bad news from the world of tarmac rules and unintended consequences. The good news is that there were only 5 tarmac delays of three hours or more in May 2010, down from 34 similar delays last year. The bad news is that many of the people who would have been sitting on the tarmac were instead sitting in the terminal. Because their flights got delayed and then canceled. Predictably.
Two points need to be made here. First, the increase in flight cancellations was as dramatic as the decrease in tarmac delays. May 2009 saw 4,792 cancellations, while May 2010 had a whopping 6,716 canceled flights. Second, this isn't a matter of "well, passengers are going to sit on the tarmac or sit in the terminal, so we might as well have them sitting in the terminal." The numbers released by the Department of Transportation show that, on balance, the net delay per passenger was longer by hours and sometimes even days.
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USA.gov is in the process of revamping their web presence and with it, they've launched not one, but four new mobile apps: "Product Recalls," "My TSA," "UV Index," and "My Food-a-Pedia." If this was a Green blog or a tech blog we'd probably spend this post mocking the UV Index thing, which is useful information, which is why people in the Southwest have it bundled into their weather reports or mounted as a widget (having the information with you outside seems to miss the point). But since this is a travel blog, we're going to focus on the My TSA application, available on the web or for your iPhone.
Your government has paid programmers to produce an application with four sections: an official TSA airport status report, a list of permissible carry on items, a "TSA Guide" with sections like "dress smart," and a wait time crowdsourcing feature. Technically the crowdsourcing feature is two separate sectionsyou can either post times or view timesbut whatever.
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Well that was fast. Spirit Airlines is pulling their ridiculously tone deaf travel ads that make light of the BP oil spill. You should check our full story on this for context and images, but it suffices to say that the airline never intended to keep the ad running. The entire stunt was part of their Ryanair-style "there's no such thing as bad press" advertising strategy, where they simultaneously get their name into the news cycle and solidify their low-rent (read: affordable) branding.
That said, this is the second time in a week where a travel ad playing off the catastrophe has been pulled. Many people still aren't sure what they're supposed to think about the consequences of the spill. And that confusion comes in no small part because they're getting two opposite messages from government officials and from the press.