Flying and That Bomb Cyclone

Fans of the business of flying should take a look at Jason Rabinowitz’s Twitter feed. His coverage of how the storm affected east coast flight operations is fascinating. He’s @AirlineFlyer. Also, see the article Why Did New York’s JFK Airport Struggle to Cope With Its Flight Backlog After the Bomb Cyclone? from The Points Guy.

Free-ish Bird

This week’s United Airlines debacle raises questions besides the violation-of-decency-in-search-of-corporate-efficiency one. The Libertarian blog Reason makes a salient point under the headline Why Should Police Help United Airlines Cheat Its Customers?

Blurring the lines between private enterprise and quasi-law enforcement bodies makes me nervous. When it’s just you and me, hapless Joes trying to catch a flight, who really knows who has what authority in airports?

The men who hauled that United passenger down that aisle were Chicago Aviation Police, unarmed, sorta real cops who play “an important, supplementary role in keeping [Chicago airports] safe by overseeing access points.”

Would you know that at the moment they muscled their way down the aisle? Does it matter? Should you just instantly cave in forfeiture of your rights to anybody in uniform? It seems like that’s what the enforcement cadres would prefer, in the name of keeping you safe.

There are God knows how many entities said to be looking out for your best interests in airports. Homeland Security people, uniformed TSA people, your local police, anybody an airline or rental car agency or for that matter, TGI Fridays down in the food court might slap a uniform on. If the guy who drives the Marriott shuttle and wears the official cap yells and screams real authoritatively, what about him, too?

In a sympathetic article from many years ago, “Chicago-area airport security chief Jim Maurer” says “What I think is unique about airports is this is a business. And our job is to make sure that that business is conducted efficiently. We’ve got to get people in and out of the airport and we’ve got to get them to their destinations. There’s a whole different perspective.”

Sure is a different perspective. We’re not enforcing laws. We’re making sure business, like United Airlines’ business, is conducted efficiently.

So why are they called police? Why are government bodies in service of private profit-making?


I was flying around doing reporting trips for my book Out in the Cold in 2015, and once after returning from the Arctic, I found a card the size of the customs form inside my bag.

Notice of Baggage Inspection from the Department of Homeland Security: To protect you and your fellow passengers your bag and its contents may have been searched for prohibited items. At the completion of the inspection, the contents were returned to your bag.”

Come now.

They say “may have been.” I’m pretty sure that if they didn’t open the bag I wouldn’t have found the notice inside. You figure?

“If the TSA security officer was unable to open your bag for inspection because it was locked, the officer may have been forced to break the locks on your bag.”

May have been.

“TSA sincerely regrets having to do this, however TSA is not liable for damage to your locks….”

Of course not.


The Department of Homeland Security claims their entitlement to the inside of your property in the name of your security. This is unsettling because what might they need to seize next to keep you safe? Your social media passwords?

Oh, wait.

Unsettling too because this week cops can haul you bleeding from your paid-for flight. Note that after auditioning all the other options, United CEO Munoz finally apologized, but no enforcement organization I’m aware of has distanced itself from the Chicago Aviation Police.

You just wait for the day that TGI Fridays cop splays you out on the floor on account of your complaint about the cold fries.



Also published here on Medium.

Great Big Circle

Flying the Qatar Airways 15+ hour nonstop from Doha to ATL last week took us on a great circle route that would be fascinating to do on the surface, straight up the Caspian Sea, closer to Baku than to the Turkmenistan coast, then east of Grozny, along the edge of the Volga flood plain west of Astrakhan, beyond which it’s not far from the Kazakh border.

Further north we crossed the southwestern Russian agricultural heartland, not far east of the frozen conflict in the Donbass. Then across the Baltics, just south of St. Petersburg and Helsinki, across Norway and over the sea near Bergen, entirely north of Iceland, across the Greenland ice cap north of Tasiilaq, from Baffin Island down west of Cleveland and on in.

We passed over Esfahan and just to the west of Qom and Teheran:


Those of you who have gotten to southwest Iran before us will know this, but judging from this photo there may not be many of you: Southwest Iran looks pretty darned desolate.


The Cold War Comes (Briefly) to Easter Island


The daily LAN flight to Mataveri airport, Easter Island

At 27 degrees south latitude the trade winds blow across Easter Island from the east, so every midday, the daily flight from South America overflies the island, way out beyond it, then turns to descend into the prevailing winds on the NASA-widened air strip. And since it’s the island’s only interaction with the world that day, you watch.

It’s a favorite guidebook story to mention that NASA elongated the airstrip so that the space shuttle could land here in an emergency. I don’t think you’ll find a guide that doesn’t mention it. The runway needed 1,420 additional feet to run it out to the 11,055 feet required for a shuttle landing.

When NASA proposed its scheme some saw it as an evil imperialist plot, and it was met with resistance and even derision by some. In a June 30, 1985 article headlined “Lonely Easter Island Will Be Emergency Shuttle Landing Site,” the L A Times wrote: “Critics claim the United States will turn the remote island into a strategically placed military base that could drag Chile into the forefront of superpower conflicts and make the country a sitting duck in a nuclear war.

In a 1986 article the Times quoted Rado Miro Pomic, a former Chilean presidential candidate, in an interview in Santiago: "The real purpose of the airport expansion is to enlarge the strategic possibilities in the event of a war with the U.S.S.R. It is logical."

Times were different, and it may be worth noting the Chilean government that approved extending the runway in 1985 was a military one, headed by Augusto Pinochet. Maybe that gave some people the jitters. But the objections weren’t just that the Soviets would rush to bomb Chile. Their was also the “Easter Island is an open air museum” criticism. Any criticism in a storm, I guess.

The Times wrote, “the project has come under fire from Chileans who fear it will damage the island's unique archeological heritage.” And: "’The NASA plan is absurd. It's like building a dance floor in the Natural History Museum,’ said Chilean historian Oscar Pinochet de la Barra, one of the critics of the space shuttle landing project.”

For all the angst, as things turned out, the Rapanui today rue the passing of the shuttle program. Chile doesn’t reckon on any more NASA-funded airport maintenance.