Monday, January 27, 2014

Because of the Bad Weather Just After New Year’s Day

Because of the bad weather just after New Year’s Day, we spent three days trying to get back from Hawaii. The trip to Hawaii was wonderfully restful; the return trip beginning the Friday after New Year’s Day was not a positive experience. Three years ago, bad weather stranded us at Newark airport for two days and we never made it to Hawaii; this time I was wondering when we would get back to New York.

Being stranded in Hawaii can really not be considered a negative. Being stranded in the Portland and Minneapolis airports doesn’t have the same tropical feel. Our return trip from Hawaii had as its only scheduled stop, a change of planes in Portland. Shortly before we arrived in Portland, the connecting flight to New York was canceled because of bad weather airport conditions at JFK. The snow had stopped a day earlier but JFK was having continuing problems which seemed to affect some airlines more than others. Now, we all understand that delays can happen; however, the fact that it took three hours trying to find an airline representative to talk to, including standing on a long line before we could get any rerouting help is not my idea of good customer service. There wasn’t even an airline representative at the gate when we disembarked in Portland, though many passengers were affected.

The initial rerouting had us staying in Portland from late Friday until Tuesday. I followed up with the airline on the phone (an 8 hour experience from start to finish) and we were given an alternative where we would arrive in Philadelphia on Sunday evening. The alternative involved flying from Portland to Minneapolis and subsequently flying from Minneapolis to Philadelphia, at which point I would rent a car to drive back to New York. We made it almost on time to Minneapolis and prepared to embark on the flight to Philadelphia. Minneapolis at the time had a temperature of -10 Fahrenheit and we had no clothes that would keep us warm or semi-warm if we needed to go outside. Somehow a sweatshirt really doesn’t serve the purpose when the climate is in negative numbers.

Getting onto the plane in Minneapolis took 3 hours longer than we expected, and then the surprise happened. The bathroom water lines had frozen and first needed to be thawed before we could take off. It never happened. First we just sat on the plane for an additional hour; then we were asked to leave the plane so that the temperature in the plane could be increased as much as possible. Another two hours later and there was the announcement that this hadn’t worked, and that another plane would soon be available. Two hours later we were able to get onto the replacement plane. And more than seven hours later than originally scheduled, we landed in Philadelphia. Add another 30 minutes waiting for the luggage, and at 12:40 AM we were set to leave the airport. Now, a snow storm is clearly an act of god and not under the control of the airlines; however, letting water lines freeze at -10 degrees is clearly a mistake of the airline. They had to know that subzero temperatures impacts water. And yet there were no consequences for the airline.

Because we landed so late in Philadelphia and it was very foggy besides, we didn’t try to drive to New York in the middle of the night. We rented a car, stopped at a local hotel, and the next morning after breakfast drove to New York.

Safety needs to come first in air travel and I would never argue that a flight should take place if that safety would be compromised. But in a difficult situation, the absence of customer service makes the situation all the worse. The lack of airline agent support in Portland, the lack of proper plane preparation in Minneapolis made a difficult situation much more unpleasant and ultimately more costly and time consuming. Shouldn’t more of this burden be carried by the airlines? And I know that some airlines did better than others. Those that did better, and the airports that did better, should be recognized and those that didn’t should face the consequences. Outcomes assessment has an important role outside as well as inside of education.

Monday, January 13, 2014


As an economist, I always await all the major economic data that is released on a regular weekly or monthly or yearly basis. I always look for the more positive signs of economic growth and prosperity, and I worry when the signs reflect weaknesses or areas of concern. But what if I didn't have access to all this data? Could I still tell what was and was not happening? Would I be reduced to visiting a fortune teller on a regular basis? Or isn't this in the cards for me?

For broad trends (as opposed to very nuanced happenings), I would rely on observation and intuition and I would expect to be more right than wrong. This holiday season was especially telling for me. More than a few times the line of cars from the highway to the largest mall in the area stretched back a full exit on the highway. Putting a value on my time, I doubt I would be willing to join this car cavalcade but more cars /people were on line and I believe that translated into more sales. Another example took place late on the night before Christmas Eve. My older daughter needed to finish her shopping and so she asked me to drive her to the nearest major department store. I grimaced and reluctantly agreed. Since it was already late at night, the store was not that full but more importantly you could see areas where there were clearly some shortages of desirable merchandise. Good lesson for my daughter but also a small positive indication regarding the economy.

My family and I spent the holiday break in a nice warm climate. Part of the allure of visiting this area is visiting our favorite restaurants and here too there were positive signs. The restaurants were packed so much so that I was glad I had made the reservations months ago. Easily more packed than the past year or the year before or even the year before that. The same for the hotel we stayed at. For much of the holiday break period, the hotel was at 100 percent occupancy, which also wasn't the case in previous years. From observation, both travel and retail sales looked more robust to me.

I'm glad to have both economic performance data and empirical data readily available. Statistics are enormously important but empirical data with a dose of intuition for me is another helpful dynamic way of assessing where we are. Thinking back to the recent holiday seasons, I am thankful for the progress that has been made and the signs that are clearly visible.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Year’s Gift

The Congressional compromise deficit reduction agreement is a very good end of the year present. After the prior budget impasses, government shutdowns, sequestration, and not helpful rhetoric, it is refreshing to see that an agreement has been crafted that will last two years and move us in the right direction—spending increases will decline in a more rational way, some fees will go up, and a non scorched earth fiscal discipline seems to be in place at last.

This clearly wasn’t an easy compromise to craft, especially given the current climate. And it is already evident that certain ultra conservative politicians and think tanks are vehemently opposed to this package. On the other hand, though perhaps less vocal, the far left leaning liberals are equally disenchanted. But isn’t this what compromise is all about? No side gets all that it wants; the country however wins when there is a measured response to serious issues that have major ramifications on the economy.

Our economy is strengthening. Third quarter GDP increased an annual rate of 3.6% which is a significant improvement over the second quarter increase of 2.5%. New residential sales of single family homes increase by 444,000 units which is more than a 25% increase. Unemployment for the month of November was at 7%, a rate unseen since the end of 2008. And the Dow Jones Industrial Average being close to 16,000 has helped bring comfort after years of concern about the viability of investments in the stock market. In all these areas we can and should do even better but the improvement has made a significant positive difference.

But, we should all remember that an economy can be both robust and yet still fragile. Every threat of a government shutdown, every mention of sequestration and, most importantly, every indication that common sense compromise is off the table, weakens the threads that hold the economy together and move the economy forward. Our government leaders do a tremendous disservice when they turn their backs on what needs to happen to best serve the interests of our country.

There are fundamental differences between the Democratic Party nationally and the Republican Party nationally. Those differences are a healthy part of the fabric of our society. But getting past these differences when decisions need to be made makes all the difference in helping to move an economy forward and a society forward.

All the best for the New Year.