Memo to Airlines: What I Want Instead of Free Food


By Robert McGarvey

The Delta announcement made me shiver in despair.  Over the next few weeks, Delta has said, free meals will return to a dozen cross-country flights.

Options include a breakfast sandwich, and later in the day, a veggie wrap and a turkey combo.

Yum.  Not.

American and United are said – in authentic monkey see, monkey do mode – to be rushing to implement similar.

Here’s my vote: just stop.  

A principle pounded into the heads of all young journalists is that there is no free lunch (a quote attributed to A. J. Liebling) and the idea is that freebies come with strings attached.  

They always do and this is certainly true of any “free” airline meal in coach.

What are we not getting instead of this free lunch?

There are many, many things I would much prefer over a tasteless tray of cheap food, put in front of me mainly to distract me from the sheer misery of flying in overcrowded coach.  

Airlines stopped dishing out free meals not long after September 11, 2001 and at first of course we all grumbled. Probably I did too.  We are creatures of our habits and, initially, airport vendors weren’t set up to fill the demand.  Now they are and, for maybe $10, it’s easy to grab a good salad, even a decent sandwich to carry onboard, to eat when you are hungry (not when it is convenient for the cabin crew to serve you).

It was at least 10 years ago that I stopped eating front of the plane food too, even though it is tastier than the stuff in coach – but it generally is very carb centric and that style of eating no longer suited me. So, mainly, even up front I did not eat or, if I did, I brought my own.

Why would I want to return to eating airline food – and in particular coach food?

I don’t.

Do you?

Most frequent fliers long ago made their own accommodations when it came to eating on longer flights.  We don’t need airplane food (a substance, I am convinced, must be served in Dante’s circles of hell, at least in the really, really bad ones).

But there are many, many – useful – things I would like from the carriers. Why don’t they address these instead? Such as:

  • Fast, reliable WiFi at no charge.  Honestly, fast WiFi with a charge would be preferable – even acceptable – over today’s slow, unreliable WIFi. But free – as increasingly is the hotel norm – would be better. If the service was fast and reliable which, too often, it isn’t.  Airlines have us here, too. In a hotel I generally ignore the property’s WiFi and create my own hotspot – faster, much more secure.  If I could do similar at 30,000 feet I would but I can’t.  I am at the mercy of the carriers and their vendors and – so far – there is a stubborn refusal to accept that WiFi is as important to many passengers as a working toilet. Will airlines ever understand this? No time soon.  And note – I am not asking for WiFi good enough to stream Netflix or make Skype video calls.  All I want is speed adequate for standard Web surfing (mainly newspaper and company sites in my case) and email.  Give me that and you can keep the breakfast sandwich.
  • More space in coach.  Lately, it seems, we get quite the contrary, with ever more bodies jammed into the back of the plane and airline designers seem forever to be tinkering with ways to get even more of us onboard (such as smaller lavatories).  I remember – do you? – when the middle seat almost always was empty.  Those were better days and if my middle seat is vacant, please feel free to keep the turkey combo.
  • More – bigger – overhead compartments.  Instead of conniving ways to force some passengers not to use overhead compartments, airlines should be deploying its space experts in a hunt for ways to offer more spacious overhead compartments. Almost all of us really want our stuff above us. Keep the veggie wrap and give me more overhead space.

Right there are three things I would much prefer over a tray of “free” food.

How about you? Comments are open.

Another Day, Another Hotel Data Breach: Your DIY Defense Guide


By Robert McGarvey

If you haven’t been a victim in a hotel data breach, count yourself lucky. Latest to join the parade s Intercontinental Hotels Group which has confirmed a breach involving some 12 hotels.

The hotels are here.

What’s maddening is that the rash of hotel data breaches in recent months all have the same characteristics.  The attack is on, not the front desk and its computer systems, but point of sale terminals in shops and, especially, bars and restaurants.

Said IHG in its statement: “Findings show that malware was installed on servers that processed payment cards used at restaurants and bars of 12 IHG managed properties.  Cards used at the front desk of these properties were not affected.  The malware searched for track data (cardholder name, card number, expiration date, and internal verification code) read from the magnetic stripe of a payment card as it was being routed through the affected server.”

Really, it’s time for travelers to protect themselves. Quite plainly we cannot depend upon hotel operators.

Trump Hotels were hit with a couple of breaches.  So was Hilton.  

Starwood, Marriott, Mandarin Oriental and Hard Rock all belong on the victims list.  

Trade publication Hotel News Now charts the many instances of hotel data breaches here.  Its count showed seven in 2015 alone.

Tech company Rippleshot offers a more recent count.

Yet another round up comes from Business Insider.

If you have stayed in any US hotel in the past couple years and especially if you have used credit cards in the restaurants, minutely check your credit card bills.  Very probably you will see charges that aren’t yours because crooks steal credit card numbers in order to put them to use.

Here’s the deal: it has become unwise to use a credit card at a hotel bar, restaurant or shop.  Pay in cash and – loudly – insist that they begin accepting Apple and Android Pay now. Immediately.  That’s because mobile payments, architecturally, are safer than mag stripe transactions and the card number, expiration date, etc – the data sought by thieves – is opaque. What movies through the system are tokens, essentially stand-ins, for the valuable card data.

That’s worthless to a crook.

Hotels also could up guest protection by turning on EMV – chip cards – because, by now, just about all the cards in your wallet are chip and that is a big step up from mag stripe cards.

But I don’t recall ever seeing chip terminals in a hotel shop or restaurant. No surprise. Hotel News Now has reported on the “lag” in adoption of chip ready terminals at hotels.  

What baffles me is why – when there have been so many hotel data breaches – the management companies have not made a full court press to up security at the vulnerable terminals.  There really is no good explanation. Note to hoteliers reading this: Use the comments field to explain why the industry has done such a wretched job handling these threats. Anonymity is possible.

The only explanation that makes sense to me is that hotel operators just have not wanted to invest in security upgrades.  The breaches won’t stop until they do, however, which means no end is in sight.

Which also means it’s up to us to yell loudly about these breaches and also to stop using cards at vulnerable facilities – and tell the staff what you are doing and why.

If you find you must use plastic at a hotel restaurant or shop, just don’t think about using a debit card. Your protections are much weaker than with credit cards – and the amounts debited will come right out of your checking account. It can take days – sometimes weeks – to get those charges reversed.  Leave debit cards in your pocket whenever you in a hotel.  

Bottmline: assume your safety and security are yours to protect whenever you are at a hotel. That includes physical security – and in-room safety cannot be assumed. It definitely means being guarded about the uses to which you put hotel WiFi. But, sadly, it now also means staying wary about using plastic at hotels.  

I just don’t see any deep commitment on the part of the industry to ending theft of credit card data from point of sale systems – and that may mean that whenever you use a credit card at a hotel you may be passing along your data to a crook too.


It’s Up to You to Stop Food Waste At Conferences


By Robert McGarvey

Nobody knows how much food is wasted at business meetings, conferences and conventions. The fast answer is a lot.  Tons and tons. Some experts guess that at least half the food at a typical conference is wasted and that means tossed out and headed to the landfill.  That’s all the sadder when the estimate is that one in eight American struggles to put adequate food on the table.  

The good news is that there now are first, tentative steps to address  food waste at conferences in particular.  That is good. There also are steps you can personally take. That is better.

But first understand the enormity of the hunger problem,. Eight million Baby Boomers are hungry right now.  On any day, maybe 50 million of us are hungry.  

How much food – really – could be harvested at a conference?  One three day conference at the Rio in Las Vegas recently produced 7135 pounds of rescued food.  That’s three and one-half tons. From just one conference. Hotel Management reported that the food “varied from hot plates of chicken and beef to salads, cheeses, bread rolls and vegetables.”

What’s exciting is that Caesars Entertainment, which operates the Rio, has said it will roll out the food rescue program to its other Las Vegas properties (which include Caesars Palace, Harrah’s, Paris Las Vegas and more) during 2017.

Caesars is not alone.  Loews Hotels also has an initiative.  

In New York, City Harvest itemizes these hotels as donors:  St. Regis Hotel | Crowne Plaza Manhattan | The New Yorker Hotel | Hotel Gansevoort | Millennium Broadway Hotel | New York Marriott East Side | Intercontinental Hotel New York Barclay | Hilton New York & Tower | Intercontinental Hotel | Roosevelt Hotel | Marriot Marquis.  In at least some cases, this may involve surplus food from meetings

But here’s the blunt reality: most meetings venues do not have a program to rescue food.

Meetings have to be a prime target because as any meeting attendee knows most venues pride themselves on always presenting full tables groaning with a bounty of morning bagels and rolls, at lunch even empty places get full plates, and at snacks there are more cookies than anyone should want.

All that is food that may well be discarded.

But much of it can be reclaimed.

There are rules about this. City Harvest, for instance, told me that it will not pick up food that has been plated and put on a table.  

That makes sense and so City Harvest suggests that caterers put out less food – leaving more food in the category that City Harvest will in fact pick up.

Know that this food is generally high quality. A recent conference at Harvard Law – on food rescue – served some 1000 meals to attendees where most of the grub was rescued.  

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, many hundreds of plates of salvaged food were served – with no grumbles.

There are steps you can personally take.  For instance, if you know you won’t be eating the lunch, tell the organizer and ask that the food be donated to a local food bank.

While you are doing that, ask more broadly how the venue handles food surplus – and point out that in most meetings towns there are busy food banks that will happily pick up the extras.

Ask pointed questions. What happens to the bagels and strawberries that don’t get eaten in the morning?  What happens to the many dozens of plated lunches that never get put on tables?  

All this is food that can fill hungry bellies.

The venue says it doesn’t know how to safely recycle its unwanted food? Here’s a city by city guide to organizations that get the job done.

Note: this movement already is lot bigger than you might think. In Phoenix, for instance, Waste Not collects some 6000 pounds of unwanted food at events daily – and that fills thousands of bellies.

Incidentally, in Arizona – and many other states – there’s a Good Samaritan law (passed in 1989) that offers protections against litigation to donors of perishables.  That’s important to know. Some would-be donors say fear of suits stifles their impulse to give but very probably the fears are unfounded.

It really comes down to us: if we pressure venues to rescue and recycle surplus food at meetings most will find a way.  

And that is a big step towards ending hunger, especially in big meetings towns such as Las Vegas and Orlando.  


Do Credit Unions Have a Friend in the CFPB?


By Robert McGarvey


The headline in a recent issue of Credit Union Times made my heart smile: “Credit Union Comes to the Aid of CFPB.”  

The fact that this is news is disturbing but it also is fact that it is news because – generally – what I hear from credit union leaders is a deep seated hostility towards the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and I just don’t get it.

That’s why when Self-Help Credit Union joined with the Center for Responsible Lending to offer support to CFPB in court actions that indeed is news.  

As for the CFPB hostility, it is thick. CUNA for instance has slammed CFPB and, per CuTimes, in the Trump era, it has “painted a target on it.”

The puzzlement is that the only credit union that has been slapped hard by CFPB is Navy Federal, the nation’s largest, which in late 2016 signed a consent decree admitting some unsavory debt collection practices.  Navy was ordered to pay $23 million to affected members as well as a $5.5 million penalty.  

Navy, earlier, had had figured in CFPB reporting over complaints filed against it.  The only other credit unions that rated a mention were PenFed, State Employees’ and BECU and, well, when only four credit unions warrant notice by a regulator this hardly seems a crisis to me.

Besides, CFPB mainly spends its time pursuing very big banks and also sleazy law firms, mortgage lenders and such like. Here’s the list of recent enforcement actions.  What’s not to like in it?

Why were credit unions formed in the first instance? Because banks largely ignored the financial needs of working Americans and often, too, they ripped them off as opportunity arose. So the bold and noble idea took hold that the cooperative framework could be harnessed to enable workers to lend to workers and to offer kindness wherever possible.

In the height of the mortgage crisis I recall conversations with numerous credit union CEOs who told me they were working hard to never foreclose on a mortgage, to find smart ways to restructure members’ loan agreements, to do what could be done – legally -to help people stay in their homes.

And they meant what they said.

Bankers, meantime,issued statements assuring shareholders that their interests were protected.

It’s a wholly different world, credit unions versus banks.

CFPB of course has a $10 billion size threshold before it exercises direct supervision – and that is about five credit unions.  Out of roughly 5900.  That means about 5900 have no direct relationship with CFPB.  

Credit union operations experts tell me that – as Marvin Umholtz elaborated – “nearly all of CFPB’s rulemakings affect CUs of all sizes.”

I’m sure that’s true and I am also sure many credit union executives – most – resent yet more layers of federal supervision and mandatory compliance steps.

I don’t blame them.  

But here’s the deal: CFPB is in the business of doing what credit unions also are supposed to do. Watch out for and help protect Americans who need help in navigating the financial services universe.

The other day the New York Times ran an editorial, “Hands Off the Consumer Finance Bureau.”  

The Times, in the piece, said that Republicans in Congress want to fire Cordray, the CFPB chief, and weaken the agency.  That would be a mistake, said the Times: “The consumer bureau is the only federal agency with the sole mission of looking out for the interests of ordinary Americans in their dealings with banks and other lenders.”

The Times added; “Mr. Trump would do well to let Mr. Cordray finish his term. After all, he has done a very good job protecting ordinary people from the powerful elites Mr. Trump spent much of his campaign raging against.”

These are thoughts credit union leaders need to mull. It is easy to rail against CFPB and regulation. But what if CFPB’s chief enemies are also the enemies of credit unions and many of their members?
What if….

Unsafe Are Us in an Age of Travel Bans

By Robert McGarvey


The next trip I take overseas I will use my Irish passport and I probably will also try to polish my Irish accent.  I am feeling ever less safe as an American and that is because even my friends who are living abroad are heaping calumny on US citizens, mainly because of actions taken by President Trump, notably his ban for 90 days on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US.  

Trump also called a halt to all refugee admissions for 120 days.  Syrian refugees are barred indefinitely.

You know about this. Who doesn’t? Protests erupted at many US airports and also airports abroad.  

One survey says that fewer than 30% of Americans support the ban and that should be unsurprising because there isn’t much to like about it.

And now things are different today, I believe, for American travelers abroad.

For years I have heard mockery of US presidents abroad – George W Bush was a favorite target in London pubs, for instance, but I have to say I heard plenty of laughter about Bill Clinton in Munich coffee shops.

Now I am not hearing laughter. I am hearing anger. Despair. Something bordering on hatred. A view of the US as a bully nation.

I can’t argue with those feelings and even though I am an American citizen, I will be leaving that credential at home for the foreseeable future.

I am waiting until the US’s international reputation is on the mend.

I am all for making the US safer but I see absolutely no gain to be had in banning all admissions from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.  15 of the 19 hijackers involved in 911 were Saudis. Saudi Arabia is not on this list.

Neither is Pakistan.

But – really – the whole idea of a total ban on certain countries makes no sense,  Just as a freeze on refugee admissions makes no sense. This reminds me of something I did 40 years ago when I lived in a cockroach infested Washington DC apartment and one night, in an angry despair as I watched yet another roach scamper across the wall, I flung the beer bottle that happened to be in hand at the creature.

The bottle broke. The mess – glass, beer – was substantial.  Of course I missed the roach.  

I see this Trump executive order as a moment where the beer bottle flies at the roach and misses it.

We are left to clean up the mess.

What I really don’t get is why Trump did not command extensive use of big data analytics to thoroughly vet incoming passengers. As far back as 2008, experts talked about the clear benefits in homeland security that can result from data mining.

Does this involve a violation of privacy? It doesn’t have to.  The public web is full of information – about me, you, most everybody we know.  Will this information help pinpoint who should be singled out for intensive vetting? You bet it could.

And it can happen in real time. Intelligently. With minimal – maybe no – disruption to most travelers.

With air travel, the US government knows who is flying in from abroad and what their passport/visa status is. That’s plenty of information to initiate a vetting of public web data and how hard is it to write a program that flags some people – a small number – for detailed interviews on arrival?

Then tap into a few non public databases – Interpol, the FBI, etc.

Only a handful of people will be inconvenienced in this search and, in most cases, there will be a prima facie good reason for it.

There’s no need to discriminate against whole countries and people.

And maybe even the people who are singled out will accept it.

I know, maybe 10 years ago, I was pulled out of an arrivals line in Puerto Vallarta and taken into an office for questioning.  As best I could figure out (my knowledge of Spanish is poor) a records check had unearthed somebody with the same last name who had an outstanding warrant.

Last name.  Not first and last. Not first, last and middle initial.

Just last name,

After five minutes of questions, the police told me to get on my way.

Was I mad? No.  A little puzzled – I’m still puzzled – but it was no big deal.

People will forgive intrusions that have a justification (however slender).

Banning everybody from Iran is just plain dumb.  Maybe even cruel and unusual.  How many enemies will this make the US?

Ditto for banning refugees. That’s dumb and cruel.

And there is absolutely no security benefit to be had.

That’s the deadend of the Trump executive order.  It inconveniences hundreds of thousands but it benefits nobody and this “self-inflicted wound” just may bring us a bumper crop of enemies.

And for those of us who travel overseas, be ready for a bucket of anti American slop to be poured on you, pretty much wherever you go,

Me, I will travel on my Irish passport and sidestep the slop.