Talking Travel with Avalon travel writer, Joshua Berman

Avalon travel writer, Joshua Berman, whose Moon Belize guidebook (8th edition) hit book stands in October, took time from his busy book tour to answer a few questions about travel, writing, and living and breathing idyllic Central America.

Don’t forget to enter the Gadling Giveaway of the latest edition HERE (you only have until tomorrow to enter!), or read my glowing review of Moon Belize HERE.

Enjoy the interview!

GAD: Not that I’m criticizing your choice here, but how did you end up in Belize? In your mind, what makes it such a special travel destination?
JB: It was a natural northerly progression, beginning in Nicaragua in 1998, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; followed by Honduras as both a trip leader and guidebook researcher. Then one day my publisher asked if I would take over Moon Belize from Chicki Mallan, the book’s original author, who was retiring. I said yes.

GAD: Based on your experiences living and traveling in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America, how does Belize contrast with its neighbors?
JB: Belize is less crowded, more diverse, more expensive, and just as tranquilo as Guatemala, Honduras, or Nicaragua. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America and its heritage as a British colony also makes it stand out from the rest of Central America (including Belizeans’ unique affinity for dark beer and stout).

GAD: What are your favorite things to do in Belize, and how do those activities reflect who you are as a traveler?

JB: I like to hike, paddle, and meet people. I also like to run into old friends, which happens every time I visit Belize. My favorite is when these activities all combine, like when I run into people I know atop Maya pyramids, on rivers, or in caves. It speaks to how small and special a place it is.

GAD: Can you tell us something about Belize that the less knowledgeable traveler may not know?
JB: Belize has one of the biggest cave systems in the world, the highest waterfall in Central America, and the planet’s first (and I think only) jaguar reserve. It also hosts one of the world’s longest and most grueling canoe races every March, La Ruta Maya Canoe Challenge.

GAD: With ever increasing eco-tourism and travel advancements in Belize, what kinds of changes do you see for the country as a travel destination within the next ten years?
JB: Belize is constantly walking the line of sustainability when it comes to tourism. There are always massive projects being proposed to increase cruise tourism, the airport, and the size of the developments on delicate islands and wetlands. But when it comes down to it, more than 70 percent of Belize’s 500 or so hotels have 10 rooms or less. That means small structures, family-run hotels, and lower impacts on the environment than big resorts and mega-hotels, which are standard fare just up the coast in Cancun. Also, I’d like to think that there are just too many forward-thinking people involved in Belize tourism to let it go astray. Belize recently hosted the third annual World Responsible Tourism Conference, which is a big deal. Ten years from now, I think Ambergris Caye and Placencia will continue to be built up, but the rest of the country will remain wild and small. We’ll see.

GAD: Based on your bio, I gather you split your time between Central America and the Rocky Mountains. How is this lifestyle and do you see it changing?
JB: I teach Spanish in Colorado during the school year and I travel to Central America on jobs during my breaks. Sometimes my family gets to tag along (here’s my two-year-old, Shanti, on her first backpacking trip to Nicaragua). It’s a tricky juggling act, but so far it’s working out, and it allows me to get my travel fix every few months while maintaining a home, job, and family.

GAD: What other parts of the world (not Central America) appeal to you – and why?
JB: My wife, Sutay, and I went to Pakistan on our honeymoon. This was in 2005 when it was a little edgy but not as dangerous as it seems to have become. We went north to the Hunza Valley in the Himalayas, which was one of the most spectacular lost worlds I’ve ever seen. It makes me drool to think about the milk tea and the glaciers and the apricot soup and yak-wool hats … incredible spot and very welcoming people.

GAD: What will be your next project as a traveler/travel writer?
JB: I’m putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of my first narrative book. It’s a travel memoir about my honeymoon and is tentatively entitled YOU WILL SOON BE CROSSING THE GREAT WATERS: A Love-Marriage Memoir from Pakistan, India, Ghana, and The Gambia. I’m hoping to publish it independently in the next year. I’m also updating two guidebooks this winter, Moon Nicaragua and Living Abroad in Nicaragua, with my coauthor, Randy Wood. You can always stay updated on my blog, The Tranquilo Traveler. See you out there.

Gadling is currently accepting entries to a giveaway of Josh’s Moon Belize guidebook. Entries are due tomorrow — Wednesday, November 18 @ 5 p.m. EST!!!

While you’re at it, check out my review of Moon Belize, too. You won’t be disappointed!

Talking Travel with Step Back from the Baggage Claim, Jason Barger

Jason Barger already knew a fair amount about people before he headed off his 7-day, 7-airport travel spree to do nothing but watch them interact. He’d spent many a spring break leading adolescents and adults on house-building ventures in Mexico, a trip that took him through various airports with a band of travelers of all ages, for example.

Wanting more fodder to further develop his ideas about airport behavior and what it says about humanity, he decided to airport hop logging thousands of miles and observations as he zig zagged across the U.S. While he watched people either shine with behavior that would make Mom proud –or in such a way that if they were a piece of luggage no one would claim them, Barger honed his ideas about how the airport is a perfect metaphor for modern day life.

The result was Step Back from the Baggage Claim, a book that Barger hopes people will leave on a bench somewhere for someone else to pick up once they’re done reading it. The result of passing the book along will be that people will think about how they interact as they move through their day.

Ever since I read Barger’s book, I’ve made my own observations about airport interactions. It does seem he’s onto something. Over the past months since his book came out, gaining steam through venues like the Washington Post and ABC News, I’ve kept up with Barger’s efforts. Yesterday, there was a post on his new video.

Today is a Talking Travel interview with questions Barger answered through e-mail in between a trip to the Dominican Republic to help with a house-building effort there. If you are looking for a tasty bite to eat that’s not expensive while passing through an airport, Barger has a suggestion.

With Thanksgiving travel rapidly approaching, listening to Barger’s advice to step back from the baggage claim is not a bad idea.

Now that people know that you’ve written a book about airplane and airport behavior, do you feel like the “Dear Abby” of travel? Does everyone have a story to tell you and want advice?

It has been fascinating to see that “everyone has a story”. Also, because the airport metaphor has been so highly relatable, people are connecting with it in profound ways.

2. What surprised you the most about your airport hopping experience? Something you didn’t expect to find out?

That we’re on ‘Autopilot’. I had the perception that people were either experiencing a real ‘high’ and excited about where they were headed or a real ‘low’ and miserable about their travels. However, what I observed was that the majority of us look like we’re walking around on ‘Autopilot’ – we’re going through the motions, almost as if we’re in a trance. This was a powerful image for our everyday lives – are we truly alive as we move through our routines? How can we be more awake as we travel from point A to B in life?

3. Have you noticed any connection between how people dress and the airport/airplane experience? Does dress for success work?

Hard to make generalizations on this one, but certainly an indicator of how a person is ‘entering’ the airport environment. Some are laid back and comfortable and some you can tell are all business.

4 Do you think it’s possible that very nice, sane, considerate people actually turn into jerks at the airport? If so, why? Is it catching?

Yes, for some reason it appears that the airport is a space in the world where some people alter their normal behaviors. I choose to believe that people are good and want to be kind to others, but it appears that the stresses and uncertainty of the airport environment often brings out the worst in people.

5. Have you ever seen Improv Everywhere’s stunt “Welcome Back?” where In case you haven’t. Here’s the link. (In this video, actors meet people at the airport with signs, flowers, balloons and applause to welcome them home. They find people to welcome based on the names scrawled on signs that drivers hold–those who are at the airport to pick someone specific up.)

Wonderful. It is amazing what positive ripples it sends to everyone in the area when others feel ‘welcomed’. It reminds me of a time years ago when I went to the airport with some friends of mine to pick up another friend coming home. We dressed in suits as if we were secret service and ushered the person off the plane. It got a great response from all!

Okay, here are some quick airport questions. They can be about ANY airport, not just the ones you chose for the book.

6. Which airport has the coolest feature and what is it?

Detroit’s ‘cosmic tunnel’. It is a great deviation from the norm. see this blog entry for specifics

7. Which one is the most comfortable for hanging out?

Seattle. I love the Seattle airport. Beautiful high glass windows looking out on Mount Rainer, thoughtful seating arrangements, variety of creative eating options, and just a well thought out design contribute in positive ways to the atmosphere.

8. Which airport has the best personality, if airports have different personalities?

Seattle for the laid back pacific northwest charm and Minneapolis for it’s classy Midwest warmth.

9 . Which airport seemed to foster anxiety?

Miami. Lots of construction, limited seating and food options, and clusters of people add to the normal airport tensions.

10. What airport has the best food find. What is it?

The Quiznos’ pre-made Italian sub that you can find at a Quiznos ‘to go’ kiosk in many airports is one of the better pre-made sandwiches I’ve ever had.

11. Name three airports you have not been to that you would like to if you had the chance?

Johannesburg, South Africa. Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tokyo, Japan.

12. And one more– Based on what you’ve observed from airport and airplane behavior, is there any hope for humanity? Any hope at all? Any?

Absolutely. We all share in the creation of today. We all contribute to each moment based on the spirit we choose to put out into the world. We can begin to ‘Change the World’ by bringing more gratitude and compassion to life in the seemingly insignificant daily moments – such as at the airport. Step Back from the Baggage Claim: Change the world, start at the Airport!

Talking Travel: David Farley, Author of An Irreverent Curiosity

Striking a balance between being informative and being entertaining is one of the most difficult aspects of non-fiction writing. And when it comes to travel writing, it becomes even more challenging. The author needs to educate readers about people and places while also keeping them engaged in his own personal story. Thankfully, travel writer David Farley has done just that and managed to go the extra mile of writing a truly enjoyable, educational and funny chronicle of his time in Calcata, Italy searching for Jesus’ foreskin. Yes, you read that correctly. He was searching for the lost foreskin of Jesus and details it in his new book, An Irreverent Curiosity

Along the way, he met a wide array of locals, each quirkier than the last. He deceived priests at the Vatican, befriended a woman who talks to birds and managed to put a tiny village back on the map. I recently sat down with Farley at a bar in New York City to discuss his adventure, how he ended up being called Gary Coleman and what it’s like to be known as “the foreskin guy.”
Mike Barish (MB):
I’m sure everyone asks you this, but it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. So why Jesus’ foreskin?
David Farley (DF): Why not Jesus’ foreskin? Who had actually thought of Jesus’ foreskin until you heard of it the first time. The first time I heard “Holy Foreskin” with those two words in succession to each other I thought it was some sort of foreskin fetish magazine.

MB: At the beginning of the story you talk about how you wanted an adventure, but you didn’t know exactly where you wanted to go. What made you want to uproot yourself, head to a tiny Italian village and search for the lost foreskin of Jesus Christ?
DF: Just out of habit of not really staying in one place at one time. Before that in the last 10 years, I had moved around so much from Santa Cruz, Prague, San Francisco, Paris, Rome, and a few years in New York. I just started to get antsy again, so my wife and I both were thinking about moving somewhere for awhile but didn’t know where. She had been reminding me about Calcata because we went there on a day trip when we lived in Rome, and it was such a fantastical place with all these crazy bohemian types there. It looks like a classic medieval Italian town, but once you start wandering around, you see that there is an absurd amount of art galleries and people are dressed in saris. You start talking to people and they start speaking about this weird energy that comes from the rock and stuff. Then I came across the story of the Holy Foreskin, and that’s when I realized that it was interesting enough.

In towns of that size [Author’s note: Calcata has app. 100 people], you often encounter two types of people: those who are very excited to have an outsider and those who are incredibly distrustful of the interloper. Overall, was Calcata inviting or suspicious towards you?
DF: I expected it to be really distrustful, especially because I was coming there to speak about a relic that I thought was a taboo subject. It wasn’t taboo at all, and Calcata is really welcoming. Pretty much everyone there was really welcoming of me there and really curious about me at the same time. It really went beyond my expectations. I really thought that some guy from New York showing up who claims to be a journalist, is mentioning writing a book about his time there; I thought that a lot of people would be really suspicious of me. Maybe they were, but maybe I just didn’t realize it.

MB: You were confronted by some priests at the Vatican while you were attempting to research the Holy Foreskin. When they asked for your name, you panicked. Why did you tell them that your name is Gary Coleman?
DF: Because, first of all, I was just talking about Gary the night before with an actor who spends his weekends in Calcata and who was in the Italian production of Avenue Q, which in Italy is called Viale T. He was just telling me that there is this part where they say, “I’m Gary Coleman,” and that’s one reason. I thought that was really funny. Then he told me when Diff’rent Strokes aired in Italy in the 80s, and if you were of a certain age everyone knew who Gary Coleman was and the famous phrase: che cosa stai dicendo, Willis (What you talking about, Willis?). I thought that was really hilarious. I even thanked him in the first book that I co-edited, Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. He’s in the acknowledgments and gets a big thank you.

MB: Some of my favorite parts of the book are your interactions with the Vatican and other scholars and how you always tried to come up with a diplomatic way to bring up the Holy Foreskin so as to not be laughed out of the room (or aggressively dismissed from the room). On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being Martin Luther and 10 being Martin Lawrence, how much of a sense of humor does the Vatican have?
DF: From my experience it would have to be a 1. They are an ancient institution that is having trouble keeping up with the modern world. So you get people like me coming in asking questions about this ancient relic that used to be part of the institution of Catholicism and the church, and they don’t know how to deal with it. If it were 500 – 600 years ago and I came in asking about the Holy Foreskin, they probably would have invited me in to lounge on their sofa and ask all the questions I wanted to about the Holy Foreskin. Now, of course, things have changed.

MB: In your recent WorldHum article, you talk about how there were mixed reactions to you writing an New York Times article about Calcata. Now you have a whole book about the town. Are you persona non grata, persona quasi grata? What is your relationship with the town and the town’s people now?
DF: Some people won’t be happy with it. I didn’t say anything intentionally bad about anyone in the book, but you never know how people are going to react to the way things are mentioned or characterized in the book. I think Calcata is a special case because the village was abandoned and the people there who still live there, these artists and bohemian types, felt like they saved the village because they did have it taken off of the condemned list. They feel really protective over it. So it is particular to Calcata that anything you write about, people are going to kind of react to in a certain extreme way just because it’s like they’re looking after their child or something like that.

MB: Part of
the story is that a German soldier during WWII had the foreskin, brought it Calcata, and that’s how it arrived in the village. The only real interaction that people have with Nazis and Catholicism up until now is in Indiana Jones. Were you at all concerned that had you laid eyes on the foreskin that your face would melt?
DF: That wasn’t my concern, but my concern would be that my hands would become numb, because if you remember from the story, that everyone was trying to untie the sack that held something in it and their hands would become numb. They needed a woman of complete purity to open it, and they found a seven-year-old girl named Clarice, to do it and she opened it. So not being a man of complete purity, I think that I wouldn’t have much of a chance of touching the Holy Foreskin without my hands or another part of my body becoming completely stiff.

MB: To me, one of the most wonderful parts of the book is that it is about you wanting to shake yourself out of your comfort zone and go on an adventure. What advice would you give to people who are maybe thinking about uprooting their lives? How do you break that inertia and say I’m going to do it?
DF: Right. I actually don’t have any practical advice for that except just to say the annoying answer is just to say that you have to do it. I’ve done it 3 or 4 times in my life already where I’ve just moved somewhere for that reason just to welcome the unfamiliar, uncomfortable. At times it sucks but in the end you become a much better, wiser person for that. You really just have to have the courage to do it. Changeability changes your world.

MB: J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye and never released anything after that. He’s known for The Catcher in the Rye, which not a bad way to be remembered. Now, heaven forbid writer’s block attacks you or no story catches on the way searching for the Holy Foreskin does, have you come to peace with being the Holy Foreskin guy?
DF: No, I haven’t. I was at a party a few months ago on the Upper West Side and somehow it was at one point where the topic of circumcision came up. As soon as it did, everyone looked at me, and I said, “What?” I knew why they were looking at me, but it was just kind of funny that just circumcision, nothing to do with historic circumcision or Jesus’ circumcision, but just circumcision in general made everyone look at me. So it would be nice in a weird way to write something else that I might be known for other than Jesus’ foreskin. I hope that I do, but until that happens, I will just be Mr. Holy Foreskin, I guess.

David Farley’s travel writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Geographic Adventure amongst other publications. He also once showed Gadling what’s in his pack. His new book, An Irreverent Curiosity, is in stores now.

Bing Travel: “We save the average couple $50 per trip”

Hugh Crean is the general manager of Bing Travel, Microsoft’s new travel search engine. Microsoft is trying to chip away at Google’s search engine dominance, and Bing Travel is part of a multi-pronged effort that also includes shopping and health-related microsites. Crean’s company, Farecast, was acquired by Microsoft last year and folded into MSN Travel. I asked Crean about what Bing means to travelers.

Q: Farecast. MSN Travel. Now Bing Travel. My head is spinning! Couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?

Crean: It’s true that we’re giving the guy who changes our name on the front door some good business this year, but we’re excited that as part of the overall Bing search strategy, Bing Travel is a solution that a lot of travelers will discover and learn about in the coming weeks, months and years. Frankly, we’re simplifying things. With Bing Travel, Microsoft now has a single online destination for travelers.

Q: How is Bing Travel different from MSN Travel?

Crean: For starters, we incorporated all the great Farecast features – price predictor, hotel rate indicator, deals, planning tools, fare alerts, and more. Plus, we added the travel editorial travelers have used and read for years at MSN Travel. Beyond those core features, we have a really deep integration with that makes Bing a great search site for travelers. Try a general Web search on for ‘flights from LAX to SFO.’ Right at the top of the results you’ll see our prediction on whether to buy now or wait, deals out of LAX, a link to our flexible travel tools and more.
Q: Bing is about a week old. Has anything surprised you about the reaction to the new site, and particularly to Bing Travel?

Crean: We’re excited that travel is a key vertical in Bing and that the user response to the Bing and Bing Travel has been generally positive. There is plenty of room for improvement and we’re anxious to receive any and all feedback from customers so we can make it even better.

Q: At the heart of Bing Travel is data-mining technology that predict the price of an airline ticket or hotel room. Can you explain how it works?

Crean: At the core of Bing Travel is a passion to help consumers make faster, more informed decisions by delivering a more organized travel search experience and providing interesting features and functionality which help users accomplish key tasks more easily.

The prediction is a good example of how we make customers smarter and more empowered when shopping for airline tickets. Every night we gather and analyze millions of airfares (we basically run and catalog every possible search for every destination and every possible date). We then monitor those fares over time. Through machine learning and other really complex methods employed by our team of data miners, we are able to predict airfare pricing trends over time. The process and the information we provide for hotels is different, but employs many of the same basic principles.

Q: I really like the way you turn airline yield management on its head. Yield management tries to predict how much money a passenger is willing to pay for a ticket. But Farecast — sorry, Bing Travel — tries to predict when airlines are likely to offer the lowest fares. How much money have you saved your customers?

Crean: We are complimentary to the airline’s yield management and in fact, we give consumers the confidence to buy when they otherwise wouldn’t open their checkbook. The airlines control their pricing, and we are offering a free tip that builds consumer confidence. Importantly, we’re a search experience and not a travel agency, so when the consumer is ready to buy we connect them with a click directly to the airline or online travel agency to buy their tickets. A third-party audit showed that we save the average couple $50 per trip. I couldn’t tell you how much money we’ve saved travelers over the life of our company, but we get emails and tweets all the time from fans who save $100, $200 and even more by using our price predictor.

Q: Those fare prediction charts that show up when I do a fare search are extremely helpful. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked, “Will fares go up?” But I’m wondering: How do you know if you’re right? Have you ever subjected yourself to an audit of any kind?

Crean: Yes, we have subjected ourselves to a third party audit. Navigant Consulting found that our airfare predictions are 74.5 percent accurate. We’ve never claimed to be perfect, and you’ll see that alongside our predictions we include a confidence rating. Our goal is to be transparent and provide as much information and data as the consumers need so they can make a smart decision about their travel.

Q: When you look at hotels on Bing Travel, you don’t see the same kind of chart as you do when shopping for fares. Instead, there are three given designations: “Deal”, “Average” and “Not a Deal.” How do you come up with those labels, and how is your algorithm for hotels different than it is for airfares?

Crean: Hotels is a very different product than air with distinct comparison and pricing dynamics, so our approach is unique based on the category. With hotels we aren’t predicting what that particular rate is going to do over time, the way we do with airfare. We mark hotels as “Deal” or “Not a Deal” based on the historical rates for that hotel over time, and a few other indicators. Again, we’re presenting as much data for travelers as possible so they make and informed choice. We like to say that all our results are based on science, not marketing.

Q: Don’t look now, but car rental prices are climbing. They could sure use a little Bing attention. Any plans?

Crean: Don’t drive any conclusions from this, but we’re definitely keeping the door open on a rental car product.

Q: I’ve noticed that Bing Travel includes more than just a way to search prices. There are blogs and forums. How do these fit into a search engine?

Crean: With Bing Travel, we’re extending beyond comparison shopping and providing content that helps travelers get inspired about where to travel and be up to date with the latest travel news. A recent Forrester report said that 20 percent of travelers start their search without a specific destination in mind. So, the idea is to complement quality travel editorial content with community content to provide useful planning insights for travelers.

Q: Bing Travel isn’t the only site that tells travelers the best time to buy. Others, notably, have similar features. How do you plan to differentiate yourself from those products, moving forward?

Crean: To be clear, no other online travel site provides a Price Predictor, which predicts if airfares are rising or falling and provides consumers with a recommendation to buy now or wait. The Hotel Rate Indicator, which uses science to indicate which hotel rates are deals, is also a differentiated offering available only to Bing Travel. Even our approach to airfare deals, leveraging billions of historical airfares to help consumers know what is a deal and why it’s a deal, is unique to Bing Travel. We’re committed to continued innovation to help consumers make faster, more informed decisions when searching for travel.

Costello: “The traveling public cannot be ignored any longer”

Jerry Costello is the co-sponsor of the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2009, which contains several important new rules designed to help air travelers. I asked the Illinois congressman, who is also the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, about passenger rights and the prospects that new rules would be adopted by the Senate and signed into law.

Q: The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index gives the domestic airline industry an average score of 64 our of 100 — essentially, a failing grade. What do you think needs to be done to fix the industry?

Costello: Ultimately, service will be as good as an individual airline wants it to be. The economic pressures of running an airline – which hit rock bottom after 9/11, through the boom period of the middle of the decade, to another lull currently – will always be there. It is a cyclical business. The key is to be able to focus on the customer experience at all times, and Congress can help emphasize these issues.

Q: The FAA Reauthorization Act contains a number of provisions that could potentially help passengers. If they become law, which of the new rules do you think will improve air travel the most?

Costello: Short-term, I believe the emergency contingency plans for airlines and airports to better prepare for long tarmac delays can have an impact on the worst of these situations. We won’t eliminate all of these situations, but I am hopeful the horror stories will be dramatically reduced. Long-term, empowering the Joint Planning and Development Office to really drive the NextGen process, and providing the funding to do it, will improve the system for everyone.

Q: In a statement following the passage of the Act, you called the new law “long overdue.” Can you elaborate on that? When it comes to passenger rights, how long overdue are these new laws? Why do you think it’s taken so long to get here?

Costello: The bill is overdue because we started the reauthorization process in 2007. The House passed a bill similar to H.R. 915 that year, but the Senate did not.

It could be argued that the passengers’ rights provisions were more timely in 2007, coming off of the very public tarmac delay incidents in the beginning of the year and a very busy summer travel season, and the fact that this year the number of flights have been dramatically reduced and some improvements in passenger satisfaction have been recorded. However, they are still extremely important, for as I mentioned above, this is a cyclical business, and the problems of tarmac delays and congestion and delays still need attention.

Q: I want to ask you about one section of the bill that’s gotten a lot of attention, regarding airline emergency contingency plans. The current bill would require airlines to come up with a plan to provide food, water, restroom facilities, cabin ventilation, and access to medical treatment for passengers onboard an aircraft at the airport that is on the ground for an extended period of time without access to the terminal. It would also allow passengers to deplane following excessive delays. What is an “excessive delay”?

Costello: Trying to determine the precise answer to that question is the wrong approach to the problem. What we have seen clearly through the hearing process and anecdotal evidence is that this varies depending who you ask. For one traveler, half an hour can seem interminable, and for another, far longer is OK, if you get the traveler where he or she needs to go that evening. Most would agree that beyond three hours is becoming excessive, but what if the plane can leave five minutes later?

It is also clear that airlines and airports need some flexibility in dealing with these situations, because they are not one size fits all. What H.R. 915 does is make sure that the proper planning is taking place, that food, water and basic necessities are being met while making preparations to get passengers off of the plane in the worst situations. If these plans are not made, fines will be issued.

Q: I asked an executive at one of the major airlines about passenger rights last week, and he said he believes many of the issues raised by your bill have already been addressed by the airline. If that’s true, then why are these passenger rights provisions needed?

Costello: For some airlines, that may be true, and I hope it becomes the norm. But we have seen over the last decade that the airlines have not been good at self-regulation. The statistic you quoted in the first question bears this out.

Q: There are several other provisions that have gotten virtually no attention from the media. For example, there’s a new rule about disclosure of insecticide use on aircraft, a rule that tightens the smoking ban on planes, a requirement that airlines must offer the option of flight change notification by email, and a requirement that the Transportation Department set up a complaints hotline. Why were these issues important to Congress? In your opinion, why have tarmac delays generated more public interest?

Costello: In general, the flying public is tired of getting poor customer service, and more than anything, just want good, on-time information. People can accept bad weather or a mechanical problem, but they want to know what is going on. The e-mail notification and hotline provisions address this need. The other provisions address health concerns.

Q: Your bill contains a prohibition against voice communications using mobile communications devices on a scheduled flights. Why is that necessary?

Costello: Everyone has experienced poor cell phone etiquette and how annoying it can be. Our bill will make sure the current ban on in-flight cell phone use is not lifted. Beyond the annoyance factor, this is a safety issue. Flight attendants already have to deal with people that will not hang up their phones, and physical altercations between passengers are not unheard of. Also, in-flight cell phone use is not conducive to providing safety instructions and other important announcements.

Q: One other thing about the bill that struck me was language that says the Secretary of Transportation must begin investigate consumer complaints regarding flight cancellations, overbooking, lost and delayed luggage, refund problems, fare overcharges, frequent flier issues and deceptive advertising. Isn’t that what the Transportation Department was supposed to be doing all along?

Costello: In my experience, the FAA’s performance improves on an issue with vigilant congressional oversight. We want to make it clear in this legislation – to both the FAA and the airlines – that the traveling public cannot be ignored any longer. This is precisely why we have held regular hearings on consumer issues since taking over as chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee.

Q: The bill is being considered by the Senate now. What kinds of changes should we expect, when it comes to passenger rights issues?

Costello: I am not expecting many changes, but that is a question for the Senate. The key is to move quickly in passing a bill so we can get to conference and enact it into law.