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Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Audacity of Grope

Now, dear readers, as someone who travels for a living, I realize that going through airport security isn’t a barrel of monkeys. But when I read about groups going ape about full-body scanning machines, or farcockt factions calling for travel boycotts to avoid Transportation Security Administration (TSA) pat-downs, I say get over it.

My ire is currently aimed at the inane idea of Opt Out Day (I shall not deign to dignify the premise with a link). Opt Out organizers want to make November 24...the day before Thanksgiving...the time when passengers just say no to advanced imaging machines, aka virtual body scans. Ah, brilliant. Encourage people to hold up security lines on the busiest travel day of the year. That'll work like a charm, I'm sure.

There is an option, of course, for opting out of the scanner. However, the full-body pat-down opens a whole new can of worms for civil libertarians and harried passengers who say the touching is too much.

Hence, another protest group, called wewontfly.com, is asking its sympathizers to reject the pat-downs. Prima facie evidence of this group's acumen: Its website equates pat-downs with groping and suggests "jamming TSA checkpoints...until they remove the porno-scanners." Porno-scanners? Really?

"It is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that could prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives," TSA Administrator John S. Pistole says (as quoted in the Washington Post). "This technology is not only safe, it's vital to aviation security and a critical measure to thwart potential terrorist attacks."

I agree. The choice between an overly-friendly pat-down or a body scanner that might reveal a blurred image of one’s privates to a solitary TSA agent versus being blown up in an airplane seems like a no-brainer to me.

Seems logical to the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) as well. The group can barely contain its excitement about the technology. “Put it in perspective, America,” an AANR press release says. “Allowing body scanners aids in travel safety and security, which is far more important than parochial concerns over a scanned image of a clothed body.” AANR’s executive director suggests imagining imaging as “a virtual skinny dip, something regarded as American as apple pie since before Norman Rockwell. (Then), everyone wins in the name of better air travel security.” Good points all (though it does give me pause to agree with a group that promotes nudist vacations as the ultimate way to avoid baggage fees).

Now, there are some arguments against scanners and pat-downs that I might buy. For example, some people are concerned with possible radiation being emitted by the scanners. I can't comment knowledgeably on that, given that I am not a scientist. Some true believers and some who are truly prudish balk at being patted down. But instead of pitching a fit, those groups can walk through a scanner.

Then there are the political theories. To wit, some say pat-downs and scanners are merely window dressing/government propaganda, and that the real evil-doers will always be one step ahead of our security systems. And there's the noted nexus between high-level DC insiders, like ex-Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, who are touting scanners as the ultimate security option, and the manufacturers of whole body imaging machines. It's a crowded lobby, indeed.

Of course, on the other side of the coin is one Mr. Ralph Nader. The consumer activist and former presidential candidate is getting his Nader’s crusaders to take an anti-scanner stance. Now, there’s a Morton’s Fork...self-interested politicians versus the guy who screwed up the 2000 election.

Nearly 500 scanners will be in U.S. airports by the end of the year, Another 500 are expected to be installed next year. Ultimately, TSA plans to have the machines replace metal detectors at nearly every airport checkpoint. So, in the 2000-teens, body imaging is going to be a fact of life. As for pat-downs, I truly doubt they are designed to provide TSA employees with a cheap thrill. That said, if a guard is the subject of frequent complaints, he or she should be retrained or reassigned to patting down cargo packages.

Perhaps a better idea is to get robots on the case. After all, if you can train Cody to give a sponge bath, scientists should be able to develop a robot that can render a reliable rubdown.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

O Say, Can You See America?

The attempt to market the tourism attractions of the United States abroad is hardly a new concept. For many years, the United States Travel and Tourism Administration robustly represented American tourism concerns overseas. But in the mid-1990s, the agency was largely defunded and its overseas offices closed. (USTTA still exists as a miniscule part of the Department of Commerce). The United States was left with the unwelcome distinction as one of the few major countries without a national tourism office.

After USTTA packed most of its bags, overseas marketing was left, in large part, to individual companies like Disney or large tourism destinations like Las Vegas and New York City. The U.S. Travel Association also has worked to bring international travelers to these shores. But especially after September 11, 2001, when tourism plummeted dramatically, the need for renewed federal support became ever more evident.

Finally, in March, 2010, the Travel Promotion Act was signed into federal law. It called for the development of a public-private Corporation for Travel Promotion, which is charged with attracting more international visitors to the United States. The U.S. Department of Commerce oversees the Corporation. An 11-member board was named in September.

At a board meeting today in Washington, DC, it was noted that President Obama has agreed to "star" in promotional spots touting the country's tourism attractions overseas. The board also discussed the use of a sexier nom de plume. "Discover America" was the popular choice. While that trademark currently belongs to the U.S. Travel Association, it appears that the name may be transferred to the new cause. The other big piece of news to come out of the session is that the board is starting the search for a full-time executive director. So, industry veterans, get those resumes ready.

Details for Policy Wonks

According to U.S. Travel, "the Corporation will develop a multi-channel marketing and communications program to attract more international visitors and explain changing travel security policies. The initiative will be funded through a matching program featuring up to $100 million in private sector contributions and a $10 fee on foreign travelers who do not pay $131 for a visa to enter the United States. No money is provided by U.S. taxpayers."

Oxford Economics estimates that, if CTP efforts are successful, it will lead to $4 billion in new spending annually, along with the creation of 40,000 new jobs and the generation of $321 million in new tax revenue each year. Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office reports that the Travel Promotion Act could reduce the federal deficit by $425 million over ten years.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pssst, Your Routes are Showing

Many Washingtonians are currently yearning to get out of Dodge, due to either the political or the natural climate. If you are one of the throngs, check out these new nonstop routes between DC and anywhere-but-here.

Gobble It Up

As a special Thanksgiving treat, Turkey is now on the menu for Washington, DC pilgrims who prefer their travel nonstop. Turkish Airlines is providing service from Washington Dulles to Istanbul four times a week starting on Saturday, November 6. The introductory one-way fare of $751 will be gobbled up fast, so book now.

Sunny Days

With Washington expected to be at loggerheads this winter, there's no better time to take off to the Caribbean. Between December 18 and April 30, Cayman Airways is bringing back twice-a-week nonstop service between Dulles and sunny Grand Cayman. Aside from the Caribbean beaches, you can visit one of the world's biggest turtle farms. No loggerheads there, just green sea chelonians. Book now and you'll only have to shell out $238 for a roundtrip ticket.

Ice, Ice, Baby

Want to go somewhere where the economy is worse than ours? Then Iceland may be your cup of tea. Icelandair begins its summer service from Dulles in May, 2011. Due to the low value of the Icelandic Krona, the country is a one hail of a deal...definitely one of the best bargains in Europe. Roundtrips to Reykjavik start as low as $429. Mind you, that's just the tip of the iceberg, as you have to add taxes and fees. But still, the trip can cost less than $700....a small chunk of change for high season travel.