Monday, October 5, 2015

Consorting With The Bureaucracy

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

My feelings about the Department of Homeland Security and specifically the TSA are widely known by those who know me.  In case you missed them, my take on the TSA is clearly articulated here and updated here.  I know it's bullshit. You know it's bullshit,  The only ones unaware of the bovine excrement that is the element of security offered by the TSA are the rookies who travel on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving with a sense of entitlement over their accomplishment of booking their first airfare.

One thing I've learned in my years of navigating the travel machine is that once I step through that cancer cavern that is the millimeter wave scanner, my future is totally out of my hands.  My human fate and my ability to arrive at my destination both rest on the competence of the TSA and the compassion of the airline employees who clearly are growing increasingly lethargic with their jobs and with passengers.

Since I posted Security Theater and Security Theater, Act II, the TSA has created the Known Traveler Number program and enacted TSA Precheck status at airport security gates.  In case you live in a cave or don't have to suffer the indignant processes thrust upon today's business frequent traveler, I'll briefly describe the procedure.  Travelers who aren't aware of the 4th Amendment submit themselves to additional background scrutiny and fork over $85 can enjoy the privilege of having that very 4th Amendment right violated just a little lessThey also enjoy more expeditious passage through that gauntlet of security professionalism and technology enablement that is TSA security.  I first heard of this when I saw "TSA Pre" printed on my boarding pass and was directed by a woman wearing a hijab  into an almost empty screening line.  What's more, I got to leave my laptop in my bag, I didn't have to completely empty my pockets, I didn't have to practically disrobe, and finally, I got to pass casually through the good old magnetometer and didn't have to stand arms up in the spinning millimeter wave cancer cavern.  If the radiation exposure risks from those things aren't bad enough, the images they yield could be quite embarrassing. I managed to sneak a photo of my most recent scan from while the TSA officer had her back to me.  I'm glad images like these are so well protected by the TSA.  But I digress.

I was intrigued by these more convenient security portal events and even considered signing up.  However, when I saw the cost, I rejected it on philosophical terms.  I'm already paying the TSA to do their job through my taxes.  Now they want me to pay them even more of my money so they can essentially do less of their jobs.  The payout they hyped to me was the more expeditious airport experience. What wasn't hyped was the fact that the same payout in the form of shorter non Precheck lines was also given to the majority who chose not pay.  The result is those who didnt pay in are reaping the benefits of those who did.  Sound familiar?

During that flight, I studied my boarding pass thoroughly and used a barcode scanner app in my phone to analyze and compare the code on the TSA Pre boarding pass to one from a previous flight without the mark.  With the exception of the flight details, the barcodes were exactly the same. So for my next flight, I employed the same technique I typically used to promote myself to Platinum status on my boarding passes.  An explanation is due here.  Before I earned lifetime American Airlines Platinum status, I would download my boarding passes and edit them to indicate that I was a Platinum flyer.  Then, I would print them and use my self-promotion to get into the first class/elite flyer security line.  But equally important than the security line was my ability to board the aircraft early, just after the first class passengers and guarantee a spot in the overhead bin for my carry-on bag.  The gate agents couldn't verify my status when they scanned the document and seemingly cared less as long as my boarding pass had the Platinum marks on it.  The other high tech traveling hipsters probably thought I was a Luddite for using paper, but I always had the upper hand.  Since the airlines started charging for checked bags, the "Battles for the Bins" became more common and the behavior of some passengers could make an entire blog entry on its own; probably even a reality TV show.

Since the Platinum upgrade scheme worked so well, I decided to step it up a notch add the TSA Pre icon to the upper left corner and see what happened.  It worked; for a while.  Then the TSA figured out idiots like me were smarter than they were, so they began to manipulate the barcode to include the TSA Precheck indicator.  Then idiots like me figured out how to beat that too, so the TSA stepped up their game and enacted features that issue new bar codes on timed intervals that appear too random (to idiots like me) to predict and mock.  Knowing my luck would soon run out, I decided to limit my boarding pass alterations to elite frequent flyer status and try to figure out why on some flights I was blessed with genuine TSA Precheck status by American Airlines and other flights I was not.  I still haven't figured that one out, although I'm told the airlines have been granted discretion by the TSA to assign it to their elite status flyers.  Happy as I was whenever I received it, I was struck by the fact that the TSA is leaving the security aspect of passenger pre-screening up to American Airlines; a corporation whose emergence from bankruptcy under Chairman Doug Parker is slower than the American economy is emerging from recession under President Obama.  American Airlines; a carrier who is hell bent on cutting costs with no apparent regard for passenger convenience and comfort.  American Airlines; a carrier with a 25% late arrival track record, and who apparently can't manage their U.S. government-approved merger with US Air any more efficiently than Hillary Clinton managed her security resources at Benghazi.  Again I digress.

What's more questionable than the TSA allowing the airlines to select Precheck recipients is the TSA allowing their own airport agents to randomly select passengers to pass through the coveted TSA Precheck lanes, simply to shorten the other lines.  This is a common practice at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.  Leave it to the TSA to attempt to expedite a line by randomly selecting unvetted rookie passengers who are ignorant of the Precheck process, who then clog up what is supposed to be a faster lane while they remove their shoes, belts, (not knowing that they don't have to) and generally stumble through the process - all while genuine Precheck credential holders who paid the price and know the procedure - file in line behind them and stare in disbelief.  Security Theater indeed.

So after all this ranting, why did I find myself waiting for an appointment outside the Global Entry Trusted Traveler office in the Minneapolis airport?  I'm very 4th Amendment aware, but I have to admit, I caved.  I have earned lifetime elite status on American Airlines and find that they grant me Precheck status on 90% of their flights that I book.  But I find myself flying other airlines more often these days; airlines on which I have zero status and I have to admit that I've become spoiled by the Precheck process.  So, I submitted myself to the background check and scheduled an interview appointment, which has to be conducted by a crack Homeland Security agent at an airport of my choosing.  Once again, the wisdom and efficiency of the U.S. government prevailed.  The earliest available appointments are scheduled out weeks and sometimes months ahead, making it all but impossible for road warriors like myself to plan to be in a particular airport at a specified date and time.  I looked ahead at all my scheduled flights and tried to select an airport in a city where I knew I would be, but the bureaucracy and my inconsistent travel schedule always worked against me.  I canceled and rescheduled several appointments until by happenstance, I checked the Minneapolis Airport office's schedule and discovered a cancellation during a week I planned to be there.  The appointment was surprisingly punctual and prompt and I was out of there with my photo and fingerprints taken in less than ten minutes and with an active Known Traveler Number ("KTN" to non Luddite hipster travelers like myself).  I could even apply the new KTN to the four remaining flights on which I was booked that same week.  I was told my official card with all its rights and privileges will arrive in the mail in a few weeks.  Like I need another card to carry in my wallet... 
When I take the hook, I don't waste time simply sinking it into my lip, I swallow the whole damn thing.  My trip to Australia is a prime example.  In this case, I could have simply acquired a KTN for TSA Precheck for $85.  But like a rookie car buyer in the signing process for a new vehicle who gladly pays for an unnecessary additional warranty, I took the bait and paid an additional $15 for the Global Entry pass that is supposed to allow me to expedite the U.S. Customs process during international travel.  I've flown internationally twice this year and have actually witnessed the benefits and since I could kill two birds with on stone, I figured the extra $15 for Precheck and Global Entry "privileges" for five years was negligible.  Interestingly enough, as I was typing this blog entry, I received an email from the "United Kingdom's Registered Traveller (their spelling, not mine) Service" offering me an opportunity to leverage my Global Entry credentials for expedited entry into the U.K. for £70 annually.  I have no plans to visit the U.K., but I might be persuaded if Australia offered such a plan.  I suppose I should look into that.

In the end, I'm sure it won't be long before the majority of passengers are "Known Travelers" and the line on our lane will be longer than the unknown traveler lines.  By then, I'm sure also that the TSA will have cooked up some new process for which people like me will ignore the additional abuse of the 14th Amendment and gladly pay the fee in our fleeting attempt at cutting our time watching episodes of Security Theater.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Outback & Forth | Shrug Down Under - Australian Oddities - Jedi Jesus

There are officially 65,486 Jedi in Australia (including Jedi Knights, Padawan, and Sith Lords), making Jedi the 18th biggest religion in the country.

There are officially 65,486 Jedi in Australia (including Jedi Knights, Padawan, and Sith Lords) making Jedi the 18th biggest religion.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Outback & Forth | Shrug Down Under - Australian Oddities - Beaches

Australia has 10,685 beaches. You could visit a new beach every day for more than 29 years.  This a retirement challenge I could take on.

Australia has 10,685 beaches. You could visit a new beach every day for more than 29 years.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Outback & Forth | Shrug Down Under - Australian Oddities - Space!

There is a place in Western Australia where outer space is actually closer than the nearest town.  I hope to get a photo at this sign.  It may be the closest to outer space I'll ever get to ride a motorcycle.

 There is a place in Western Australia where space is closer than the nearest town.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Happy Constitution Day!

Constitution Day (or Citizenship Day) is an American federal observance that recognizes the adoption of the United States Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. It is normally observed on September 17, the day in 1787 that delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document in Philadelphia.  This is the Document Obama has ignored and/or eviscerated for the last six years.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Outback & Forth | Shrug Down Under - Interstitial Accommodations

I have spent my life on the road waking in a pleasant, or not so pleasant hotel, and setting off every morning after breakfast hoping to discover something new and repeatable, something worth writing about.
- Paul Theroux

I certainly can't say I've spent my entire life on the road, but I can honestly claim that a considerable percentage of my adult career life was spent away from those I love navigating airports, sleeping in hotel rooms, hanging on for dear life in taxis, riding trains, and driving rental cars.  Quite honestly, when I travel for work, I rarely discover anything repeatable or worth writing about, although my time in Manhattan might be a notable exception.  I travel for work so that I can travel for fun and fun always makes good fodder for writing.

The vast majority of sleeping accommodations for this adventure will be a sleeping bag in a tent with no turn-down service, no mini bar, no cable TV, no miniature shampoo bottles, no air conditioning, and no flushable toilets.  I'll spend the first two days in airports, on airplanes, and on shuttle buses.  I arranged my outbound flights to place me in Airlie Beach by midday on Thursday, but I won't hit the Outback until Saturday.  This itinerary is intentional and it allows me two days to acclimate to the +15 hour time zone difference before hitting the dirt.  I also baked in an additional night before my return flight, just in case my arrival in Fremantle is delayed.  This means I'll have to find accommodations for two nights in Airlie Beach and one, possibly two nights in Fremantle or Perth.  My first inclination was to use Hilton hotel points, but the nearest Hilton property to Airlie Beach is 600km north in Cairns, so that's out.  Although not popular enough for Hilton to waste their time on it, Airlie Beach is apparently a popular Queensland vacation spot and the few hotels there are expensive, even during what will be Australia's winter.
Airlie Beach in Queensland, Australia - I'm leaving this for 4,000 miles of dirt, rocks, & sand?
I can't sleep on the street and I don't know a soul in Airlie Beach, so I signed up with Airbnb, a website for people to rent out lodging in their homes, apartments, condos, etc.  I learned about Airbnb while traveling in Manhattan for work, where one of my client's employees rented out a space in his upper west side apartment.   Having never heard of Airbnb before, I pressed him for more information and learned that the space he rented out was actually a couch in a closet behind a curtain.  Upon seeing my expression of surprise and disbelief, he added that he gets $50 per night for that couch and that it was consistently booked at least four nights every week by guests who actually saw photos of it before they paid in advance to rent it.  This is part of the subterranean economy in Manhattan fueled by entrepreneurial endeavors such as Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and the like.  Go Capitalism!  But I digress.

The Airbnb site claims over a million listings in 190 countries.   I dug around and found several offers in Airlie Beach within 2km of where I need to be to kick off my ride.  According to the listing descriptions, I can get a bedroom with a lockable door, a private bath (not just a closet!), and Wi-Fi  for two nights in an unoccupied vacation home near the beach for about $100US.  The location and price seem almost too good to be true, so I did some digging.  Despite the self absorbed and somewhat creepy ad below, I continued to research.
The Airbnb concept has a surprisingly thorough verification process.  With just my name and the last four digits of my social security number, the site pulled up an address for a home I rented in D'Iberville, Mississippi thirty years ago.  It also had me confirm my daughter in-law's maiden name.  I of all people recognize that privacy is a thing of the past in this connected age, but I was still surprised at the information about me that was out there from many years before the Internet exploded.  Like Uber, Airbnb allows guests to review their hosts and the hosts to review their guests.  If a property is a pigsty or the guest is a pig, the reviews will indicate so.  All of the Airlie Beach properties I'm interested in have great reviews.  Still, I'm hesitant to book just yet because they all have pretty strict cancellation policies and I'm squeezing every extra dime I earn to afford this trip.  There are a host of webpages detailing Airbnb horror stories and despite having read through some of them, I'm keeping this option open.  I've read terrible reviews about hotels, restaurants, etc. that I found to be just fine.  The jury is still out on this one, so stay tuned.  Worst case, it could provide some great blog fodder.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Outback & Forth | Shrug Down Under - Australian Oddities - Spiders

While Australia has the world’s most venomous spiders, there have been actually been zero spider bite-related fatalities since 1979.  Let's just get through June of 2016!

While Australia has the world's most venomous spiders, there have been actually been zero spider bite-related fatalities since 1979.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Outback & Forth | Shrug Down Under - Final Flight Itineraries

One of my earlier posts detailed the account of my booking my outbound flights from Texas to Oz.  The 331 day advance limitation referenced in that entry also applied to my return, so I had to wait for a date that was equal to or less than 331 days from the day after my scheduled arrival in Fremantle after the Outback crossing.  I had hoped that this 331 day wait would give me the time to earn the remaining miles I needed to actually make the trip back home in a business class seat.  Worst case, I already had what I needed for a coach seat, but the idea of flying 30 hours in the cattle car plus layover times between five airports did not sit well with me.  I needed to find a way.  This is where the gift of determination I received from my mother came in handy.  I hope that gift manifests itself when I’m on the trail next summer.  As my luck would have it, the booking experience for the return flight proved to be no more pleasant nor no less stressful than was booking the outbound flight.

I had been checking almost daily for the flight options back to Dallas from Perth and there were always plenty of flights and route options.  The most appealing route was from Perth to Honolulu and into Dallas.  The Honolulu stop is a must because Perth is on the far west end of Australia, a country about the same width of the United States.  Based on the route with extra stops I have to take for my outbound trip, I should have known better than to think I could book such a convenient route back home.  When I was looking for sample outbound flights, I was excited to see a direct flight from Dallas to Sydney and a single connection flight from Dallas to Los Angeles to Sydney, with the final hop up to Mackay.   Unfortunately, the options presented to me when I actually attempted to book the flight were not as direct.  Apparently, American Airlines thinks I need to visit the Phoenix airport on my way to LAX before crossing the pacific ocean to Brisbane.  I suppose one more stop in the grand scheme of things is no big deal.  The first leg allows plenty of layover time to make it to my flight to LAX.  As stated before, my outbound route is DFW to Phoenix to LAX to Brisbane, and finally to Mackay.  I depart Dallas at 6:25pm on Tuesday, May 31st and arrive at Mackay on Thursday at 10:45am, 15 hours ahead of Dallas time.  If all fights depart and arrive on schedule, the total travel time will be 19 hours and 45 minutes with about six hours overall layover time.
My 25-Hour Outbound Path
A few weeks passed since I booked the outbound flights and I finally had the miles that I calculated I needed.  I logged on to and entered my origination and destination points just as I had several times before in my anticipatory "practice runs", only this time with the appropriate departure date.  This time there was nothing available; nothing in business class, nothing in coach, nothing in the cargo hold.  Shit.  I tried another day.  Nothing.  Double shit!  I needed to get from Perth to DFW and was getting desperate and willing to take any route to do it.  In my practice runs, there were flights from Perth to Honolulu and either direct from Honolulu to DFW, or to DFW through LAX.  Not this time.  Of course not. It's me and this time it's for real.  I found routes from Perth to Sydney and from Sydney to DFW, but no "packaged" end-to-end routes.  Doing a little research, it turned out there is only one flight daily from Perth to Sydney and it arrives in Sydney after the only flights from Sydney to Honolulu or DFW depart.  That explained the lack of an end-to-end route, but it didn't ease my mind any.  I found a flight from Perth to Brisbane that had a two hour layover before a Brisbane to Honolulu flight.  The route was there, but it wasn't available for me to book on points.  What the hell else could possibly go wrong?  Part of me was in a quiet panic while the other part was calm knowing that getting to Australia was my goal and I had that covered.  Getting home was secondary...until I remembered that I have a family and a job.

I finally gave in and called American Airlines.  This was double frustrating because; 1) in July,  American moved their call center apparently to another planet where English is another dimension, much less another language; and 2) because if I use "live person" to book my flights, American charges me $40 on top of the international airfare taxes.  Granted, $40 in the grand scheme of things for business/first class tickets is minor, but the principal of paying someone else to do something else I can do myself sucks.  But I digress...

I held my nose, called in, and was told to expect a 25 to 35 minute wait on-hold, or that they would use a new feature to call me back at my place in line.  I opted for the call back, which turned out to be 50 minutes later.  When I explained my dilemma to the thickly accented Martian reservation agent, I was placed on hold...for another 35 minutes.  I awakened to the sound of a woman speaking clear English and once more explained my dilemma.  This time I got the help I needed and the agent even said it didn't make sense that I couldn't book it myself.  She was able to secure the reservation for me on the day I wanted, in business class or fist class seats on every leg, but not before placing me on hold for another 15 minutes.  All told, I spent over two hours on the phone booking flights that I could have accomplished myself online in ten minutes.  I was however, very grateful for the agent's assistance and stated so as we ended our call.

So now, not only am I booked into Oz for my ride across the Outback, I also get to come home!  My return route is set and like the outbound itinerary, it has what I believe to be gratuitous stops.  I'll be flying on June 23rd at 12:55pm from Perth to Brisbane to Honolulu to Portland, and finally, I'll take a red eye from Portland at 12:30am on Friday the 24th with a scheduled landing at DFW at 6:00am.  The total travel time back home is thirty hours in the air, plus eight hours in layovers.  It's an insane amount of travel time with too many stops, but I'm flying first class all the way and it gets me home with a three day weekend to try to get over my jet lag before getting back to work. I also convinced American Airlines to waive the $40 agent fee since their technical issue was none of my doing.  Now if I could just get my two hours phone time back...
My 38-Hour Return Path