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“This flight has been oversold, we are looking for volunteers to give up their seats and in exchange we will offer a $275 flight voucher with no blackout dates.”

I found it odd that the gate agent used the term “oversold” instead of “overbooked” as if to skirt the connotation that it was any fault of the seller; that the demand in the free market is really what generated the selling of more seats than actually exist on the plane.  And there is the exact problem, a seller offering something they can’t follow through on.  Consumerism has suffered and debt has ballooned in historically painful pasts and present as average Joes have purchased goods on credit they didn’t have the assets to back up.  The dilemma seems no less problematic from the other end where a company is taking money for a product it can’t actually deliver on.  All too often on airlines, “this flight has been oversold” is the opening salutation that marks the beginning of the painful boarding process.

Fuel costs are at all time highs, overweight passengers cost more to transport, security costs are through the roof; we’ve all heard the headlining explanations as to why airlines are collapsing as if the age of air empires is being grounded.  So, like any modern business they begin to rely more on economics and statistics.  The carriers know that a certain number of passengers will not make it onto the plane.  They will reschedule flights, change plans altogether, or who knows, just not show.  Big data is the emerging technology that is shifting the way that all businesses conduct themselves and effective tracking/use has made gross national trillions. Although, the problem is that complex data sets can’t reliably track human behavioral outcomes without fail.

Computational matrices will say based on past traveler habits, seasonal trends, weather, and whole variety of other proprietary coded secrets to sell five more tickets than actual seats on the plane.  The data shows the likelihood that 5 people won’t show up and instead of an airline missing out on that potential $1,000+ in ticket sales, they overbook.  Intentionally.

Last night at Ronald Reagan Airport (DCA) as the clock rolled closer to midnight and delays for the last flight to BDL (Hartford) compounded, the gate agent announced with increasing fervor that,

“This flight has been oversold, we are looking for volunteers to give up their seats and in exchange we will offer a $275 flight voucher with no blackout dates.”

I have always heard these announcements and been so jealous of the lucky travelers who could lay claim so just an offer of gold.  With no churning agendas, they could confidently delay their plans and pocket a free flight for another day.  Well last night, I was in the lucky position to have the same circumstances cast upon me.  Feeling bad about the prospect of abandoning my CEA group on the last leg of our journey together, I didn’t have specific Saturday plans so I at least humored myself in talking to the US Airways employee manning the microphone.

No sooner had we entered the airport had we gotten notification that our already late flight had been delayed.  Are delays becoming more standard than on time flights?

No sooner had we entered the airport had we gotten notification that our already late flight had been delayed. Are delays becoming more standard than on time flights?

“This flight has been oversold, we are looking for volunteers to give up their seats and in exchange we will offer a $275 flight voucher with no blackout dates,” she said in response to my inquiry.

“Yea…I caught that part…what is the next flight we would get booked onto?” I queried

“805 tomorrow morning.”

As I processed how that would stick me with yet another night around 5 hours to sleep, I asked about hotel accommodations for the night.  I was met with the response of, “We are not offering hotel rooms at this time.”  I did that sideways head turn that dogs do when they are either confused by your actions or hoping you feed them table scraps.  Knowing the cheapest hotels in DC are around $400, this struck me as downright dumb.  This offer might only entice a person who lives in DC and already has lodging to take this deal.  Otherwise, by my count, it would be a net loss to the customer of $125.

I felt bad for the 5 angry people who were standing in a separate line up against the wall in desperation just hoping someone would give up their seat, but this was just a bad offer I walked away from.  I was with a union group and figured there was no need to negotiate at this time, simply wait for the airline to feel more pressure and wait for a better offer. This unfortunately did not happen for the next 30 minutes of pre-loading organization.  As Zones 1 and 2 boarded the plane, no deals had been made.  The same 5 people stood in the same line, only the general atmosphere had transformed from frustration to anger and was teetering on rage.   I was ¾ of the way back in Zone 3 boarding (out of 4 zones total).  Just before my boarding pass was scanned, I asked the agent if she was still looking for people to get bumped off the flight.  She responded with an emphatic “Yes, yes, yes…pleeeeeeease!!” I asked if they were offering a hotel yet, and if so, I would also need cab-fare to get there.  I was particularly impressed with myself for mentally mapping out that last part.  I unfortunately had failed to ask about food vouchers, which, note to self: do next time.  She called up her supervisor, brokered the deal in no more than 20 seconds of desperation and told me to step out of line so they could process everything after the plane was loaded.  I asked her if I could have a later flight than 805 so I could have time to explore the city a little more, and she snapped back, “Yes, there is an 1100 flight, just please step out of line.”

IMG_6166 IMG_6167 IMG_6175 IMG_6169

Another teacher with our group asked for straight up cash.  She was told they “couldn’t offer that anymore” to which she speedily sidestepped onto the plane.  One other man took the deal that I got and in the mean time the 5th person in the stand-by line gave up hope and walked away.  That meant there were two bodies left yearning for this nighttime flight and the comfort of their own Connecticut beds.  The girl in front, sporting a UCONN sweatshirt unabashedly broke into tears that dribbled down onto Jonathon the Husky.

My information was processed minutes later.  I was given a hotel voucher, flight voucher, and told a shuttle would pick me up in 10 minutes.  I walked toward ground transportation and stood statue like, frozen in the cool wind, wishing I had packed a jacket while I waited for a bus bearing the Hyatt Regency Crystal something-or-other markings.  Shortly thereafter, I was whisked away to my hotel. In 8 minutes, I entered the stunningly modern and breathtaking lobby, was processed by reception and entered a chic and impressive hotel room, which for the third night in a row had an extra bed I wouldn’t be using.  I smugly paused at the threshold and thought to myself about how proud I was of my decision.  I had beaten the system.  I wouldn’t have to drive until 2am to get home from Hartford; I would claim a good night’s rest in a different and exciting environment.  I turned on the TV which was a treat to watch for once and fell asleep to the MSNBC reportings of corporate greed.

For $810, I would not have thought this was a good deal, but a clean, modern hotel room just asking to be slept in for the cost of $0 is a warm and welcome sight.

For $810, I would not have thought this was a good deal, but a clean, modern hotel room just asking to be slept in for the cost of $0 is a warm and welcome sight.

This morning was leisurely as I woke up at 8:30, made a chamomile tea, and flipped through a DC sightseeing coffee table book after a long shower.  I had time to peruse the gift shop before I caught the 920 shuttle back to the airport.  I spent all of that time wondering where I would go with my new flight voucher.  I dreamed of exploring Denali National Park, touring my family around San Francisco, or relaxing on picturesque beaches in Cancun (wait, does US Airways fly to Mexico?).

TSA regulations are definitely made for worst case scenarios.  I have never taken longer than ten minutes to get through security and after that minor yet reassuring inconvenience of de-belting and barefoot body scanning, I settled in at my gate to trek onward past the first 95 pages of Gone Girl. The 1100 flight delayed to 1150.  1150 delayed to 1245.  1245 delayed to 215.  215 delayed to never.  The flight was cancelled all of a sudden.  The false hope all of the delays gave the mob around me only increased the irate shouts of passengers who were tired of being jerked around.  We were fed constant lies over the PA system of our plane being late to arrive from another location (even though it was already parked on the tarmac), of our captain and crew running late (but told they would be there in only 5 minutes on three separate occasions), and of weather issues.  As everyone around me got incensed, I just kept trying to crack what was going on with Nick and Amy in this growing murder-mystery of a book.  Every 15 minutes I heard “Attention military members, the USO lounge is open from 6am-10pm and can be accessed through…” blah blah blah. It would be the thing I heard most by the end of the day, because it is now 900pm and I have been in this terminal for almost 12 hours.

The customer service line hadn’t shrunk to under 20 people in the first 10 hours I was here, and I reckon when I hopped in it, I was a solid 60 people deep.  I tweeted and called US Airways with my dying phone as I inched toward the counter in an hour total.  I was told I was automatically rescheduled to the 835pm flight because the 4pm flight was booked and that I just had to stay in line to get my new ticket printed.  I wanted to make sure that I would actually get home tonight so I asked what the reason for the cancellation was.  I had heard it was weather, but the rep on the phone said that was not the case, nothing was posted in her system, but if it was weather, they would have known.  For that reason, she confirmed that I could request food vouchers in response to me directly asking.  Once at the counter, I was told no food vouchers because the original flight was cancelled due to weather (lies!) and that I would be put on standby for the last flight of the night at 835pm.  I was dismissed and given a ticket with no seat number or boarding zone.  Normal me would have been enraged, but I just didn’t really care.  I wanted to make sure I was going to get home, but the waiting didn’t bother me as much as it visibly did the passengers of the other flights around me that were cancelled.

I stood at a charging station to get my phone some juice, and went through 5 customer service phone calls, 3 internet confirmations, and 45 minutes of being on hold.  While I wish these numbers were exaggerations, they are not.  In the end, all it took was one competent person, the last man I talked to who said he just had to click one button on his end to assign me a seat and I could see any ticketing agent 4 hours before the flight to print out a boarding pass.  While the process sucked up a lot of my day, I ‘m not mad because I’ve been super productive.  With no bed to nap on, no wifi to be distracted by, and consequently no Netflix to be consumed by, I was stuck with a book and my mind.  I let my phone battery die down so no one could text me, and I just fell in to my book.  This must be why Thomas Jefferson was able to read as many books as he did in his life.  I had just seen his collection at the Library of Congress for the second time in my life and am still in awe.  What does my generation do when given free time? We distract ourselves, we do something mentally passive while the time ticks by.  It felt good to immerse myself in something that required brainpower and long periods of focus even if I did have to spend a whole day in a noisy airport with food I can’t eat (Still going strong on Whole 30 even though it’s around day 65).  And at the end of the day, I still have a free flight to somewhere.

Replica of Thomas Jefferson's library on exhibit at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Photo taken from washington.org

Replica of Thomas Jefferson’s library on exhibit at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Photo taken from washington.org

 

To see the high resolution photo album from the trip, click here: Brian F Germain’s Flickr Account, CEA/NEA Orientation Album

 

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I’m not sure how late people stayed up on Wednesday night enjoying the open bar and light snack reception, but I was excited to take advantage of the hotel pool and workout room in the morning.  There is nothing like a school day that starts off with a bodyweight WOD and a mile long swim for a cash-out as the sun is rising and shining through the all glass enclosure occupied solely by me.  Instead of twenty-eight kids calling my name simultaneously for help on foreign propaganda analysis, this morning I got to just float.

View from the pool onto the Tarmac.

View from the pool onto the Tarmac.

When I made my way back to my room to shower and change, I noticed a line of zombies sifting through a buffet line.  The 147 young men dressed in business casual with heavy eyelids amidst the movable corporate art of a red umbrella gave some clue that an insurance convention was in town.  Hartford being the once famed “Insurance Capital of the World” before it wasn’t cost-effective for insurance companies to headquarter here in large numbers anymore, insurance agents are not hard to find or spot.  I’m not sure if these guys stayed up all night partying, or they just hate their jobs, but they were silent and sloppily methodical moving through line.  I actually felt the misery, wafting through the aroma of bacon grease, encapsulate me as I simply strolled by en route to the elevator.  In that moment, I was happy about two things: 1) I had worked out and had endorphins pumping so I felt really good 2) I was in an active profession where I feel everyday that the work I do matters.  That is not to say insurance agents don’t have that same feeling, I would hope that they do if that is the profession they chose, but I know it’s not for me.  I would be miserable.  Teaching is for my calling; teaching is my passion and purpose.

I'm Brian Germain and I approve most of this message.

I’m Brian Germain and I approve most of this message.

When I had packed up and gone downstairs to our group’s buffet, the energy was palpable.  Bright shining faces were excited about the trip before us and I knew that these were my people.  Maybe it was that teachers are just happy when they get to spend a school day outside of school.  Or maybe everyone was just happy because it was 9am and that is considered “sleeping in” in a profession where we all rise before the sun, most in the 5 o’clock hour.

After a relaxing flight to DC with a row to myself (which would be a theme as I got rooms to myself for the duration of the trip as well…missed bonding opportunities) we dropped bags off at the hotel and went to NEA Headquarters where the building wowed all in attendance.  The entrance was beautiful, the atrium was awe-inspiring, and even the cafeteria food was delicious.  After a quick lunch, we headed to the main boardroom on the second floor and began our day.  We were first greeted by Jim Testerman, past president of Pennsylvania’s Teacher Union and current Senior Director at the NEA Center for Organizing who has been filling that role since November, 2011.  The former 7th grade science teacher set the tone with brief opening remarks that included discussion of pushing agency fees this year.  As the new guy, I didn’t know what he meant, but as it was mentioned several times throughout the weekend, I naturally looked it up so I could have a clue.

From the NEA website, “Such a provision requires that all employees in the particular bargaining unit who are covered by the collective bargaining agreement must pay their “fair share” of dues to the union.

The premise is this: since a negotiated agreement covers all employees in a bargaining unit, and as such the benefits of the collective bargaining agreement and union representation are enjoyed by all employees in the unit, all employees should pay their “fair share” to help defray the costs associated with collective bargaining and union representation.” Source: nea.org

At its most basic, I take this to mean anyone getting union benefits needs to cough up some cash because that is both fair and the union wants more money.  Agency fees were only going to be the start to my confusion as Dave Welker who works in the Campaign and Elections Department led us through a three-hour seminar on Charter Schools.  I knew it was going to be a rough ride after he introduced himself as someone who “works on tracking the bad guys.”  It didn’t take long to decipher the union hatred toward charter schools, or maybe just this man’s hatred of them…I don’t know, I was still confused by the end.

NEA We Educate America

NEA: We Educate America.  The corporate art that was donated and proudly handing in the atrium.

According to the presentation, since 2000, John Walton of the Wal-Mart empire has pumped $1.5mil into charter schools and in the year 2010-2012 private funding for charter schools hit $266.7mil.  At first glance, I don’t see this to be a big shock.  There is overwhelming evidence to say that American public education is hurting really, really badly.  A knowledge based economy, we aren’t and all around the world, other countries are kicking our butts on PISA, TIMMS, and other comparative measures of academic prowess. When things aren’t on a good course, people innovate and experiment, that is human nature.  Think of if our ancestors stuck with dragging and pushing supplies on skids and never invented the wheel.  Trying new things is the namesake of progress and I have always seen charter schools as a way of embodying this human ideology.

Future data presented show 54% of Americans in a 2014 poll believe charter schools were “better” than public schools. One of the main problems appears to be that this is a hit on the union represented public school teacher.  Often times charter schools are skimming the best students off the top of public schools.  With continually added pressure for the strapped public systems to perform, as 1 in 20 students are now enrolled in charter schools, some districts have reported lower test scores as some of their high achieving demographic are pursuing charter options.

Two of my favorite agents for change.

Two of my favorite agents for change.

A main focus of the presentation was that charter associations often have no membership fee required, although it didn’t sound like Dave was actually too concerned with having this in place for the sake of protecting teachers, Dave was a man who followed the dollar signs.  He bashed Newman’s Own for charter school donations and called out several other companies and individuals for funding connections.  He was angry, confusing with his message and lacked a clear call to action which made him generally hard to follow.  I actually wrote in my notes about halfway through that “This guy is working pretty hard to get everyone to drink the Kool-aid, but is actually a very douchey presenter.”  I kept looking around the room to see the head nods of my colleagues which only brought further confusion.  Was this something that I just wasn’t understanding but it clicked for everyone else who was furthermore on board with this guy’s views?

I believe in peer-reviewed science and data, which one of my awesome ex-girlfriends would swoon to hear me say, but we were not presented with any of that.  What we were shown was a graph and a series of convoluted statements packed with bias that insulted our collective intelligence.  For instance, a graph of charter school growth in New England from 2002-2014 showed NY climbing quickly and CT increasing charter schools at a snail’s pace.  The shock that was sold to us was that “CT must take action to stop this from happening” and “New York and Pennsylvania [neither of which are in New England, thus making the chart mislabeled] are flooded with charter schools” and “You should be both shocked and scared by how many charter schools exist.”

To add a little perspective, because I have a Master’s Degree after all and have learned to think for myself:  NY and PA have a higher population and are simply larger than Connecticut, relatively speaking to the statistical world of proportions, they should have more charter schools and also the likelihood to see quicker growth.  Basic economic principles state that the larger the market, the larger the potential for growth. As if no one even bothered to look at the Y-axis, NY is at around 250 charter schools while CT hovers around 20. My best guess with data, is that CT has 1,179 schools so charter schools represent approximately 1.7% of the total.  New York City by itself has around 1,700 schools, but the entire state logs 6,298 according to reliable sources, which means the total percentage of charters is around 4%.  Both are but a drop in a glass of water, but I get the concern.  Even a drop of a toxic substance can do harm and if you can stop someone from introducing toxic substances in the early stages before the point of no return, that is certainly preferable.  But just what is it that makes charter schools so toxic?  The real answer is lack of transparency and public accountability.

As I ponder accountability, the frequency in which others took bathroom breaks increased.  This is what conference fuel looks like.

As I ponder accountability, the frequency in which others took bathroom breaks increased. This is what conference fuel looks like.

After spending considerable time bashing the charter system, its sub-par educators, and Teach for America Fellows, Dave ended his long brainwashing session with advocacy for Charter Teachers to join unions.  As this was completely counterintuitive to the earlier message of killing charter schools, this led me to wonder if the NEA just wants their money.  Is this just an established entity seeking to buyout a startup that threatens their vigor, not so we can utilize their strengths, but so we can pacify and ultimately shut them down?

I get it, charter schools takes funding away from public education, of which I am a part.  Teachers have less protection and they can work their tails off to be fired at any time….just like a normal job.  The opportunity to unionize and protect the rights of educators while advocating for the best routes to student success are vital.  But not all charter schools are built on a bedrock of pure evil.  At the end of the day, I care about what’s best for the kids.  Do some charter schools provide students with opportunities they might not have previously had? Of course they do! Corporate funded charter schools who have big dollars flowing through the front door are scary because they defy regulation.  In an antiquated, faltering system of education we need innovation and I think charter schools can provide a valuable service in it’s pursuit.  As a state and a nation, we can’t just keep doing things the same way and hope to get different or even better results; that is the classic definition of insanity that Confucius coined millennia ago.

Charters shouldn’t be shut down, just come under closer watch and have to follow more stringent regulations.  They can’t have the best of both worlds in keeping selection, donors, profit, and other processes secret while continuing to defy government oversight under the auspices of being “private institutions” and still getting public support and government aid for building, taxes, etc. by saying they are “public institutions.  Fall in line with one of those distinctions, and fall in line with the rules that appropriately accompany said selection.  They must operate in a more responsible manner than they are right now and from what I rotely remember from my 7th grade public education is that “Responsibility is something for which one is accountable.” (Thanks, Mr. DeLucia). The schools need to be accountable to the community they serve and not just investors.  The government must hold these schools accountable to protect the communities they serve.  Don’t shut down charter schools, they are just like kindergartners playing on the playground, they don’t know any boundaries until they are established and enforced.  Arne Duncan, when you read this, maybe think about issuing charter schools a set of common sense rules that will help serve and protect current teachers, learners and posterity.

Towards the end of the seminar’s rant, it appeared other teachers fell into the boat of angry confusion with me.  When the last question of the session asked Dave to clarify what exactly his call to action was, he responded with, “I don’t know, I guess it’s your union and you guys have to figure out what you want to do.” Thanks, Dave.  Keep tracking the “bad guys.”

Eerily empty edifice of the National Education Association, Washington, DC

Eerily empty edifice of the National Education Association, Washington, DC

To see the high resolution photo album from the trip, click here: Brian F Germain’s Flickr Account, CEA/NEA Orientation Album

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