Tuesday, August 14, 2007

LAT Weak In Reporting LAX Computer Foul-Up

The story by Ted Rohrlich and Tami Abdollah in this morning's Los Angeles Times on the computer "glitch" in the Customs operation at Los Angeles International Airport Sunday that stranded 17,000 arriving passengers for hours, many of them on their airplanes, was weak and oriented more toward bureaucratic explanations than the experiences of the afflicted passengers.

The L.A. Times played the story on the front page both Monday and today with the prominence it deserved, but there is precious little in either story from the passengers who were the victims, once again, of the general incompetence that often pervades LAX operations.

Also, it took the L.A. Times two days to learn just how many passengers were stranded in the episode. Monday's initial story says 6,000. The 17,000 figure took a day to surface. But I wonder whether the depleted L.A. Times staff, afflicted by buyouts and cost cutbacks, actually sent many reporters to the airport to find out firsthand what was going on and interview the passengers when they finally got off their planes. There is little evidence the paper did. The story that ran Monday had not been updated late in the evening as more information became available, (as the Times did, by the way, in its recent brushfire stories).

By contrast, the New York Times air travel columnist, Joe Sharkey, reporting this morning on an incident involving a diverted international Continental flight stranded for five hours on the tarmac at Baltimore is filled with the passengers' accounts of what happened, and the frequently surly response of both airline and airport officials.

Airline service this summer has, by many accounts, been absolutely terrible, as an overcrowded system leads to intolerable delays, and the airlines' unwillingness to serve food on most flights leaves passengers, when they are kept cooped up on planes for hours, without anything more than pretzels to eat.

At LAX, the problem was an ill-diagnosed computer problem with sensitive information needed by Customs to keep terrorists out of the United States unavailable, and, to their credit, LAX officials saw to it that many of the airplanes were refueled and provided with food, so that they could keep air conditioning going and the passengers fed.

The Rohrlich-Abdollah story this morning does raise questions about the lack of timeliness of response, by the Sprint Nextel company, to the computer problems, and implicitly questions why more incoming airliners weren't diverted to other airports where there were no computer problems.

But the whole tone of the story is more concerned with bureaucracy and its excuses than about what might have been done differently as far as passenger treatment was concerned.

The L.A. Times editorial page does run two letters this morning from irate readers complaining about how matters at LAX were handled. But this would have also been an appropriate subject for an actual editorial. As usual, the Times editorial pages, supervised by the Chicago Tribune lackey David Hiller, were slow and inadequate in their response.

As the air travel problems have increased this year, the L.A. Times has been very quiet about them. Just this week, the Times introduced a new consumer columnist, David Lazarus, but his first column was quite mundane, on the safe subject of identity theft.

We'll see if Lazarus writes about LAX and the airline industry's problems in his next column.

As a consumer columnist for the Times for three years, (1998-2001), I found quite a bit of resistance in some quarters (but not by my editor, Tim Rutten) to columns that took on business interests and bureaucratic systems. Finally, the column was canceled by Tribune's new editors at the Times, John Carroll and Miriam Pawel. They didn't have the stomach for tough consumer coverage.

Long before Tribune took control, other Times consumer writers, such as Susan Diamond, found themselves in trouble when they tried to write honest, if abrasive, columns.

The Times remains quick to take on the beleaguered L.A. Police and Sheriff's departments, and to assail public officials for their sexual affairs or living outside their districts. It is far less willing to deal with the inadequacies and screwups by private entities. And it is weak, as the Rohrlich-Abdollah story was this morning, when it comes to giving consumers a chance to vent their spleen in such stories.

The readers of the L.A. Times, need it be said, are mostly consumers, not officials.

--

The L.A. Times has begun reporting more comprehensively, on Page 1 as well as in the Business section, on the failures of various financial institutions to control the mortgage crisis. However, with the exception of Tom Petruno's articles, it is not coming up to the very extensive New York Times coverage. There is now an estimate out there that 1.7 million of the 3.5 million sub-prime mortgages will go into default. This, it is clear, would create a severe fall in housing prices and a further drying up of investments financing loans of many types. The coverage must
be massive, on a daily basis.

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