DATE April 3, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Anthony Shadid discusses reporting for The Washington
Post in Baghdad about the war in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Anthony Shadid, is in Baghdad reporting for The Washington Post.
He's reported from most of the countries in the Middle East and is the author
of the book "Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats and the New Politics
of Islam." We called him at his hotel in Baghdad this morning as the city was
preparing for urban battle to begin.
How are you preparing for fighting in Baghdad?
Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (The Washington Post): You know, it's interesting. I was
talking with a colleague of mine here, and, you know, we talked about how
these two weeks, we were ready for. We knew what was going to happen. You
know, we had a sense of how things might unfold. I don't think anybody
expected the war to go on as long as it has gone on, but we kind of knew what
the initial period would be, and we knew what our role would be here as well.
The government had an interest in getting its word out and, you know, we would
listen to that word and we would try to do our own work as well.
But, you know, in our conversation last night, we had no idea about what's
next. I mean, like a lot of people in Baghdad today, they were mystified
about what's about to take place. You know, we made precautions. We have,
you know, flak jackets, helmets, chemical suits. We've tried to make
contingency plans to go to Iran perhaps or to go to Jordan if things really do
get out of hand here, but, you know, I think these are all plans and they're
all kind of talk at this point. And, you know, I guess the real sense is just
to, you know, play it day by day and hope that things go as well as they have
so far, and if they don't, be flexible enough that you can change plans. You
can, you know, look for alternatives and just try to kind of stay light on
GROSS: Are you afraid?
Mr. SHADID: I am. You know, I've been hurt before. I was hurt when I was
covering the Israeli incursion into Ramallah last year. And I have no desire
to be hurt again. I have a daughter and a wife at home in Washington and, you
know, while I do think this story is worth some risks, you know, it's not
worth losing your life over and it's not worth putting yourself in danger
that's kind of foolish or reckless.
GROSS: You know, I was thinking about you because March 31st, Monday of this
week, was the anniversary of the day that you were shot.
Mr. SHADID: It's interesting, yeah. Someone had sent me an e-mail asking
what had happened, and they sent that e-mail on March 31st, and it struck me,
you know, that it was one year since I had been...
GROSS: Yeah. What happened when you were shot?
Mr. SHADID: You know, it was so much of a different story than the story now,
because, I mean, here we kind of knew what was going to unfold. Like I said
earlier, we had a sense of what was next. When I was in Ramallah, I had no
sense. I went there just because I expected the Israelis to retaliate for a
suicide bombing in Netanya, and I wanted to be, you know, in the right place
at the right time. What followed was a full-scale invasion, and the Israelis
retook the city, and I was caught there. I had no clothes. We had no food.
And I basically just kind of hunkered down in my hotel the first trip. I
didn't want to head outside and, you know, take too great of risks.
By the fourth day, you had a sense that things had kind of loosened up. You
felt a little bit more comfortable, and I was making my way around with a
colleague going to hospitals, talking to families, you know, always interested
in the mood. I mean, I think sentiments are so important in how a story
unfolds. And by the end of the day, I was headed back to my hotel, and one
shot rang out and it hit me in the back. It went into my left shoulder and it
hit the tip of my spine, but it didn't hit the spinal cord, and then it went
out my right shoulder. And I fell to the ground. You know, we were kind of
stranded there. I mean, it turned out to be a long story. We were stranded
there. We tried to call an ambulance, no ambulance could come.
And he finally helped me up, and we kind of walked for about a--you know, it
seemed a mile, but it was probably just a hundred meters or so. And I got to
an Israeli unit who gave me first aid, and then a Palestinian hospital took me
in that night, and the bullet had left my back so they just had to bandage it,
basically. And then later on, I was transferred to Jerusalem and then I had
surgery at Johns Hopkins. You know, I was with the Boston Globe at the time,
and we filed a complaint with the Israeli army because we believed the army
shot me when I was in Ramallah. The circumstances, you know, still remain
unclear, and I do play it through my mind a lot about why I was shot, you
know, then and there. And I think the last correspondence I had was that they
couldn't determine who had shot me, so it's probably going to be, you know,
one of those things that's always unresolved.
GROSS: So you'll probably never know who shot you and how it happened.
Mr. SHADID: Right. That's right. And, you know, it wasn't cross-fire. I
mean, obviously, it was one shot, and it hit my back high up and, you know,
who knows where they were aiming, but it was a very specific shot that
actually passed under my flak jacket. And I was lucky to--you know, my wife's
a doctor, and when she looks at the wound, she just, you know, shakes her head
because it passed within about a millimeter of my spinal cord, so I do feel
GROSS: We're recording this interview, and right now, it's Thursday morning,
10:30 East Coast time. What time is it in Baghdad?
Mr. SHADID: It's 6:30 in Baghdad right now. You know, the sun's setting.
It's kind of dusk outside and, you know, dusk always seems to come a little
earlier the past couple of weeks because of the oil fires that are burning on
the city's outskirts. You know, not only the sky has a dark tint to it, but
even the buildings have started to have a film of black soot over them that
adds to the kind of dreariness of the city.
GROSS: Now I know by the time our listeners hear this, the story in Baghdad
might have changed. It might have changed dramatically. But right now, it's
6:30 in the evening your time. What are you planning to do for the next few
Mr. SHADID: Well, what the routine has become over the past couple of weeks
is you try to record as much as possible during the day and get our
information and then wait to see what happens in the evening, which is usually
bombing. Bombing steps up quite a bit in the evening. Because it's become
routine, it's become, you know--I almost hate to say it, but it's become less
of a story in some respects, just the act of it. Obviously, the repercussions
of it, that is very much a story, but it's very difficult to see those
repercussions at night. You kind of wait for that to begin, and then you
begin writing around nine or 10 at night, and we usually write till two,
three. Some people are staying up until six in the morning to finish writing.
And then you get up the next morning and you do the same thing. There's very
little down time. You know, often, when you're on assignment, there is a
certain down time. You have time for dinner, to take a couple hours off.
That really isn't the case here. It's pretty much an around-the-clock story,
and it's kind of wearying, I mean, in that sense. You find yourself trying to
get up as early as possible because you don't want to miss anything, and then
staying up as late as possible because you want to, you know, treat the story
GROSS: A lot of the time when you're writing, there's bombing going on,
Mr. SHADID: It is. Yeah. And, yeah...
GROSS: Yeah. So how's the bombing affecting your writing? I mean, that's
not exactly a great atmosphere.
Mr. SHADID: No, it's funny. One of my closest friends is here in Baghdad as
well, so we've been working out of the same room at night. And it was funny,
the first night, we were so, you know, alarmed with the bombing, we put our
flak jackets on and our helmets and actually slept in them. I mean, looking
back on it, it was kind of comical. Now, you know, we don't even get out of
the chairs when the bombing happens again. I mean, I think it's sad in a way.
You know, it's always a danger as a reporter to get too used to things. You
lose your eye a little bit. You don't pick up on things that you might have
picked up on when it first started.
But I guess, you know, the flip side of that is that you almost have to bring
a certain normalcy to it; otherwise, it would, you know, be unbearable. You
know, so we do write. I mean, we'll pause for a few minutes if the bombing
goes on, trying to at least understand or at least see where it's happening.
But then, you know, you're facing a deadline. You kind of keep on going and
you do kind of put it to the back of your mind a little bit.
GROSS: Well, given that you've already been injured while covering conflict,
you must really believe in the importance of covering the war in Iraq. You
must really believe it's worth putting yourself at risk to cover what's
happening in Baghdad. Why is it so important to you?
Mr. SHADID: You know, at some point, the risks are too great to cover a
story, but, you know, I think this story is such a moment, a moment for this
country and a moment for the region, and it is with some risks. I do think,
you know, this war--and, like I've already emphasized is, you know, what
follows this war is going to define the region, define this country for
generations. And, you know, as a journalist, you can't help but feel strongly
about covering that moment, understanding it and seeing how it all plays out.
GROSS: And what about as a person? Do you feel personally that there's
something very important to you to be there and bear witness to what's
Mr. SHADID: You know, I think professionally, you feel an obligation to
understand the story, to bring a depth to the story that might not be there
otherwise. You know, on a personal level, I think you feel the story, and I
think if you quit feeling the story, then you probably shouldn't be writing
it. You know, I recall one of the first stories I did here was about a woman
who had sent her son off to the front on the first night of the war. And, you
know, it was a story that probably wouldn't have been told otherwise, you
know. You know, they said goodbye. She waited till the bus left, tears were
running down her face, and now she's back in her, you know, miserably poor
apartment waiting for news that she hopes will never arrive. She's constantly
listening to BBC and Radio Monte Carlo, and there's a certain dread that kind
of defines her life right now that seems to order it in a lot of respects.
You know, I've always felt as a reporter that you give voice to people that
don't have voices. And I think that's one of the great things that reporters
can do, is that we go out there, we try to find stories, we try to see
anecdotes and experiences and lives, I mean, to put it most broadly, and to
bring voice to them, you know, to bring them alive for readers that wouldn't
be able to come into contact with them otherwise.
GROSS: Did you get the impression that this woman wanted her son to serve in
the army or that he was coerced into serving?
Mr. SHADID: You know, it's a mixed bag, and I think there's no question that
a lot of what motivates--the defense of this government right now is motivated
by fear and repression. It's a spectacular record of brutality over the past
30 years. But at the same time, I mean, she was convinced--and who knows, I
mean, if she was speaking completely honest to me or not, but she was
convinced that he did want to defend Iraq. It wasn't a defense of the
government, and she never phrased it in those terms, but she did phrase it in
defense of his country. And, you know, it's hard to gauge those sentiments.
It's incredibly hard. And I think it's going to be a sentiment that has a
very decisive impact ahead, but still perhaps in the early stages. You get
the sense from his sisters, you know, the five of them that live with her,
they didn't want him to go, and I think, like a lot of people in Baghdad,
there's a fear that this is a losing cause, the great costs to the people that
are going to be fighting it.
GROSS: You're of Lebanese descent...
Mr. SHADID: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and you also speak Arabic, so you can speak directly to the Iraqis
without a translator.
Mr. SHADID: That's right.
GROSS: Do you think that the Iraqi people who you were talking to might feel
more comfortable with you because you speak their language and might perhaps
be willing to tell you things that they feel uncomfortable telling other
Mr. SHADID: You know, at a certain level, I think that's the case. But you
still are an outsider. I mean, there's no question that an unmediated
conversation is going to be much more effective, and there is a certain trust
that comes with that, a certain familiarity, you know, a certain kind of
shared experience. I think there's no question about that. But Iraq is a
country that feels very strongly, has a very strong sense of itself, at least
Baghdad does, and you still are a foreigner and you still are an outsider, and
there is that, you know, not suspicion--I don't want to overstate it because I
think Baghdad is remarkable for its hospitality and generosity, you know,
these traditions that the Arab culture celebrates. But at the same time,
you're a stranger, and there's only so far people might go with a stranger.
GROSS: Well, I wish you safety and, you know, be well. Thank you very much
for talking with us and, you know, good luck with what's ahead. Thank you,
Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.
GROSS: Anthony Shadid is reporting from Baghdad for The Washington Post. Our
interview was recorded this morning.
Coming up, poems from World War II. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Harvey Shapiro discusses editing the anthology, "Poets
of World War II"
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Harvey Shapiro, edited the new anthology "Poets of World War II."
He writes, `Four hundred thousand Americans died in World War II. This is not
a book of celebration, unless it is to celebrate man's ability, indeed, his
compulsion, to turn terror into art.' Most of the poets represented in the
book served in the military during the war. They include Stanley Kunitz,
Kenneth Koch, Lincoln Kirstein, Louis Simpson and Richard Wilbur. Editor
Harvey Shapiro was a radio gunner during the war and was decorated for his
service. He's a former editor of The New York Times Book Review and the
author of several collections of poetry.
Harvey Shapiro, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start by asking you to read a
poem by Howard Nemerov called "The War in the Air." Would you say a few words
about the poem and about Nemerov before you read it?
Mr. HARVEY SHAPIRO (Editor/Poet): Sure. Nemerov volunteered to serve as a
pilot in the RAF before he was actually transferred to the United States
Army/Air Force, and a lot of his poems grow out of his experiences flying out
of England over the North Sea for the RAF.
"The War in the Air," the title of the poem, it's significant because the
Second World War, I think, was marked by aerial warfare, just the way images
of trench warfare dominate the way you think of what happened in World War I.
The burning cities and the fleets of bombers, I think, dominate the imagery of
the Second World War. One of the interesting things about aerial warfare from
the point of view of those who took part in it--and and I was one of those--is
that, you know, the dead didn't come back. I mean, you had breakfast in the
morning with a group of guys who were flying, you know, a plane next to you in
formation in your squadron, and they didn't come home that night. They didn't
come back from the mission. They simply--as Nemerov said, they stayed out
there in the clean war, the war in the air.
So this is the way he talks about it. `For a saving grace, we didn't see our
dead, who rarely bothered coming home to die, but simply stayed away out there
in the clean war, the war in the air. Seldom the ghosts came back bearing
their tales of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea, but stayed up there
in the relative wind, shades fading in the mind, who had no graves but only
epitaphs, where never so many spoke for never so few; per ardua said the
partisans of Mars, ad astra to the stars. That was the good war, the war we
won as if there were no death, for goodness sake, with the help of the losers,
we left out there in the air, in the empty air.'
The Latin that Nemerov uses, per ardua, ad astra, `Through adversity to the
stars' was the motto of the Royal Air Force.
GROSS: Right. OK. Well, thank you for reading that poem. You know, in
commenting about the poets and the poems represented in your World War II
anthology, you say that, `The poetry in this book is very bawdy, bitchy,
irreverent, and a lot of the poets of World War II don't glory in brotherhood
and they don't find nobility in one another; quite the contrary. They often
dislike one another or dislike being put cheek by jowl alongside one another.'
Can you talk a little bit about that kind of tone that you found in these
poems and why you think that's true?
Mr. SHAPIRO: People were snatched from a life into a situation that seemed
bizarre and somewhat unreal to them. I mean, there's a kind of arc that goes
from the poetry of the Second World War up through the poetry and through the
writing and the memoirs of, say, the Vietnam War. There's a kind of
ratcheting up of that surreal quality. But what happens in the Second World
War is that people are caught in this giant machine. They can't hold it in
their head. They come from all different parts of the country. And unlike
the poets of World War I, who were kind of officers, they were all mostly
officers who came out of a kind of gentleman's club, these men--some of these
were farm boys, you know, working-class, Ivy League, as I was; they don't have
a lot in common with each other. Kind of each of them is fighting his own
individual war. And they all commented--a lot of the poets comment on that
GROSS: There's a poem that I want you to read that I think, you know, is
about the difference between those two worlds. It's called "Survival
Infantry." It's written by George Oppen, who served in the 103rd Infantry
Division in Europe, and he was wounded by shell fire in 1945. He left the
country for most of the '50s because he had been a Communist, and I think the
FBI was interested in talking with him, but then he came back and ended up
winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1968. Do you want to read this poem?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Fine.
"Survival Infantry." `And the world changed. There had been trees and
people, sidewalks and roads. There were fish in the sea. Where did all the
rocks come from and the smell of explosives, iron standing in mud? We crawled
everywhere on the ground without seeing the earth again. We were ashamed of
our half-life and our misery. We saw that everything had died, and the
letters came. People who addressed us through our lives, they left us gasping
and in tears in the same mud and the terrible ground.'
GROSS: Harvey Shapiro edited the new anthology, "Poets of World War II."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, how the airline industry is being affected by the war. We
talk with Edward Wong, aviation reporter for The New York Times. Also, more
poems from the anthology "Poets of World War II." And Ken Tucker reviews the
new CD by Rosanne Cash.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our interview with Harvey Shapiro, editor of the new
anthology "Poets of World War II." He's the author of several books of poems.
Most of the poets included in the new anthology served in the military in
World War II.
Now you fought in World War II. Were you drafted? Did you enlist?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, I enlisted. I was in the enlisted reserve. I would have
been drafted; it was just another way of entering the service. And I went
through aerial gunnery school in Yuma, Arizona, and then I went to radio
operating school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Then after my phase training,
my training with the squadron and learning how to fly and fight in formation,
I was put into B-17s, flew as an instructor in the States for a while with
other radio gunners, and then went overseas. I did volunteer to go overseas,
and I was in the 15th Air Force flying out of Foggia, Italy, over Germany and
Austria. I flew 35 missions.
GROSS: Well, I'd like to ask you to read one of your World War II poems. And
this is a poem that's included in your anthology, "Poets of World War II."
It's a long poem, so I'll ask you read an excerpt of it. And why don't you
introduce it for us.
Mr. SHAPIRO: I wrote an early poem, "Battle Report." This was the first poem
I was pleased with when--I wrote that in the '50s when I came out of the war.
But then as I got older there were stories that I hadn't told that I wanted to
tell. And they keep coming up. And these war stories are two stories that I
wanted to tell and I couldn't get them down until only recently. First begins
in Foggia, Italy, where I was stationed.
(Reading) `"These are a conquered people," said the British sergeant, putting
his hand on my shoulder at the bar in Foggia, Italy.' This is 1944. `He was
instructing me on why I should not tip the Italian barmaid as I was doing, a
conquered people. I liked the phrase because it had the ring of history,
suggested dynasty, policy, put the British Empire with the Roman down the long
reach of time, but in the real world, it made no sense. How did it apply to
the Italian kids who came to my tent each morning to trade eggs for
cigarettes, or to the old Italian lady in town who was teaching me the
language, or to the girl in the Air Force rest camp on Capri I fell in love
with Christmas week? They were hardly a people, much less conquered. They
were living as I lived, on the bare edge of existence, hoping to survive the
interminable war. But high above their cities on my way to Germany to kill
the enemy I was part of that sergeant's fictive world, part of the bloody
story of our century.
`We were approaching Berlin at 23,000 feet, our usual altitude for bombing.
P-38s, looking like flying catamarans, had accompanied us most of the way.
Little friend, little friend from Italy. Now nearing the target we had P-51s.
We knew that when their auxiliary fuel tanks were jettisoned from their
underbellies and came floating down like silver baubles, a sky full of them,
enemy fighters would shortly show.
`A clear, blue light flooded my cabin. Through my window and hatch I could
see what looked like miles of Flying Fortresses, the big-assed birds in their
tight formations, blue all around them, followed by white contrails. Later,
colored traces would connect bomber to enemy fighter, and then the black flak
would spread in the sky, a deadly fungus. Planes would blossom into flame in
that bewildering sky. How to believe all that happened as in a movie, a TV
drama or some other life.'
GROSS: So when you look back on your experiences in the war, does it feel
removed, like a movie or a TV drama, or do you feel like this is something
that has really shaped you and has never left you?
Mr. SHAPIRO: Both. I'm 79 now. I was 19 or 20 then. It was another life.
It was somebody else who had these experiences, but they resonate in me still.
Every once in a while I can touch them and feel them quite vividly, quite
GROSS: What do you find yourself thinking about the most watching the war in
Mr. SHAPIRO: I think about what the guys are going through. I think about
the fact that a lot of them are the age I was when I had this experience. The
technology's so different that some of what I see is quite foreign to me, but
the faces of the men, and the men and women that I see, are not foreign to me,
and I feel very close to them.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Thank you.
GROSS: Harvey Shapiro edited the new anthology "Poets of World War II."
Coming up, what's happening in the airline industry. This is FRESH AIR.
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Analysis: Difficulties US airlines are facing
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Edward Wong, is aviation reporter for The New York Times. This is a
tough time for the airline industry. Many people are reluctant to fly because
of their anxieties over the war and terrorism. Wong says passenger traffic
dropped by 10 percent during the first week of the war, and advance booking
dropped by 20 percent compared to the same time last year. Many flights to
and from Asia have been canceled because of the respiratory virus SARS, which
originated in southern China. And several major airlines are in, on the verge
of, or just out of bankruptcy.
Mr. EDWARD WONG (Aviation Reporter, The New York Times): We've got two
airlines in the US in bankruptcy, or two fairly large ones. One is United,
which I think most people know about. It had to file for bankruptcy
protection in December. And recently, right after the war started, Hawaiian
Airlines, which is the 12th-largest carrier in the US, also went through
bankruptcy even after they managed to get some labor concessions.
American Airlines recently avoided going into bankruptcy this week by getting
these tentative agreements from its labor unions for wage and benefit cutbacks,
but a lot of analysts are saying that American might not be out of the clear
yet, that the business environment is so bad for airlines right now that
American could be forced to file for bankruptcy later on. It all depends on
whether the environment improves and whether American's able to work out
certain financial setbacks that it has.
GROSS: Now what about US Airways?
Mr. WONG: And US Airways just came out of bankruptcy on Monday. They were
in bankruptcy for eight months, and a lot of people in the industry have been
fairly impressed with how Dave Siegel, the chief executive of US Airways, used
the bankruptcy to really cut a lot of fat out of his airline fairly quickly.
But again, here we're seeing a very sober, very depressed business
environment, and it remains to be seen right now whether US Airways will stay
out of bankruptcy. They don't expect to make a profit anytime this year or
next year, and that doesn't bode well for them.
GROSS: I know the airlines were badly affected by September 11th and fear of
flying because people were afraid of terrorism in the air, but were they in
bad shape even before September 11th?
Mr. WONG: They were in bad shape before September 11th because of the
downturn in the economy that started in 2001. What had happened was during
the big boom era of the dot-coms, the airlines started basically doing a lot
of things to their business model that didn't help it once the economy took a
downswing. They added a lot of flights to the system. They started charging
astronomical walk-up fares to business travelers because these Internet
companies would foot thousands of dollars just for someone to fly out to
meetings. And they also gave very, very generous contracts to a lot of their
workers because they were starting to make profits at that time. And then,
when the downswing in the economy took place, then all that came back to haunt
And what you're seeing now is you're seeing the airlines going to Washington
to ask for some financial aid, saying that the war is really hurting them.
And a lot of the legislators there are saying, `Well, you had these problems
before the war started and before the September 11th attacks, and it's your
own fault that you created this unviable business model, and we're only gonna
give you a nominal amount of aid. You have to go back and fix yourselves.'
GROSS: Well, the appropriations committees of the House and the Senate voted
to give the airline industry about $3 billion in emergency assistance. Is
that considered nominal aid?
Mr. WONG: I think the legislators call that nominal aid, and the airlines
would definitely like more aid than that. They've been lobbying for, say, a
repeal or a temporary suspension of a lot of the taxes that are levied on
them. They want the government to, for example, release some oil reserves so
that they can keep oil prices low. They want the government to pick up all
the costs of additional security that have taken place since September 11th.
And just, for example, picking up some of the security measures and repealing
some of the taxes amount to four billion alone, and the House and the Senate
measures both allot about $3 billion in aid. Potentially the airlines were
hoping maybe that they would get up to, say, maybe even $10 billion as an
entire industry, and that doesn't look like it's going to take place.
GROSS: What makes the airline industry so special that Congress is willing to
give them aid at a time when so many businesses and so many industries are
suffering because of the war and because of terrorism?
Mr. WONG: Well, I think there's a lot of factors that go into that. For one
thing, right after September 11th, the federal government shut down the entire
US airspace for three days, and that really hurt the airlines a lot, and it
wasn't their choice to shut down this system; it was the government that ended
up imposing that shutdown on them because of the terrorist attacks. I don't
think anyone's questioning the wisdom of shutting it down, but I think that
the airlines had a good case for asking the government for some reimbursement
for all the lost business that they were incurring then. And they were still
paying a lot of operating costs on their planes and on their workers even as
they were unable to make any money during those three days.
Also their argument is that the terrorist attacks really hurt their industry
more than most other industries because it really struck fear into travelers.
And then the security costs that were being imposed on airports and on them
now, those were matters of national security to prevent terrorists from, say,
taking over more planes and flying them into buildings, and that these should
be costs that the government should help pay instead of the airlines because
it's a matter of national defense.
Also I think that the airlines often argue that they're an essential part of
not only the US economy, but the worldwide economy, and that if any of them
were to fail, or if routes were to be cut back a lot, then it would be a huge
downturn for the economy. So some legislators are buying that; some aren't.
GROSS: Why are the economy airlines, like JetBlue and Southwest, doing pretty
well financially while the major airlines are in such dismal shape?
Mr. WONG: Well, I think the sort of the model for all the low-cost carriers
is Southwest Airlines, which started out back in the 1970s, and they've been
profitable for 30 years, which is incredible considering how unprofitable the
large network carriers are. Basically Southwest operates on a completely
different business model than the large airlines. The large airlines all
eventually developed these systems where they have large hubs in places like
Chicago or Atlanta or San Francisco where they would feed passengers into the
hubs from all these other cities and then fly passengers back out of the hubs.
That model is good for making a lot of money because passengers can fly from
all over the country into the hubs, but it's bad on the cost side because of
the way you have to schedule the flights in and out of the hubs and of the
congestion on the runways in the hubs. It ends up costing the airlines tons
of money just to operate a system like that.
Now Southwest, what they did was they started doing what's called
point-to-point flying, rather than using hubs, which is just sort of operating
what's basically a bus system in the air, just flying airplanes from one city
to the other without having these large airports where they would fly planes
out to all kinds of smaller cities from there. Now flying point to point is a
more cost-efficient way of doing things because you can turn the planes around
much faster. Southwest tries to keep their planes on the ground only 20 to 30
minutes and then turn them back around and get them back in the air, so they
manage to use their planes, as well as their crews, a lot more each day.
The other thing that has attracted people to Southwest as an airline to fly is
that its fare system is much more easy to understand than the ones of the
network carriers. The network carriers have this very complex fare system
where the amount of money you're paying for a walk-up, last-minute fare, could
be five times, 10 times what you pay if you bought that fare say three weeks
in advance with a lot of restrictions on it. Southwest's fare system is much
more simpler to understand because the walk-up fare is only around twice as
much as the lowest fare you pay, and they only have around four or five types
of fares, whereas the network carriers have dozens of types of fares. And I
think any traveler who flies, a lot of people, feel like they're being ripped
off when they get on a plane because they feel that someone on the plane paid
a better fare than they did.
GROSS: When you talk to airline executives, do you get the sense that they
are aware, and that they take seriously, how really annoyed passengers are
now; annoyed not only by the lack of food on planes, but by punitive
cancellation policies, bizarre pricing systems, uncomfortable seating? I
mean, you know, in addition to all the security issues and terrorism, you
often feel like you're being punished when you fly.
Mr. WONG: My sense is that the airlines are in a mode where they really are
so desperate to just try and squeeze out whatever profits they can that the
convenience of the customer is not necessarily a top priority on their list.
They're thinking that as long as the customer is willing to pay some money to
get between places, as long as they can pocket that money, then that's all
they need to do. If they start offering the customer all kinds of luxuries
like hot meals, free video, then they might not make as much money and their
companies might sink. So I think the luxuries that were once given to the
customer, luxuries as they see it and sort of just standard comforts as
customers see it, are going to fall by the wayside.
GROSS: Bankruptcy is helping the airlines trim their costs. What kind of
concessions are the airlines going into bankruptcy getting from their workers?
Mr. WONG: The first thing that the airlines want from most of their workers,
who throughout the industry are mostly unionized, are pay cuts and cuts in
benefits. They're asking for substantial wage cuts. And then, on top of
that, they also want these unions to help them rewrite the contracts so that
they eliminate a lot of the inefficiencies in productivity that take place in
the contracts, what are known as work rules. And the work rules are a very
complex system of what workers can do and what they can't do, and how many
workers need to be assigned to a given job and how many days off do workers
need after working X amount of hours. And these rules were all written up
when the industry was regulated by the government, and a lot of the airline
executives see these rules as hampering them in a free-market environment. So
they want a lot of these contracts to be scrapped, and they want them to be
rewritten so they can use the workers more efficiently and get more
productivity out of them.
GROSS: Do a lot of the workers for the airlines, from the flight attendants
to the pilots, feel like they're being unfairly squeezed by the airlines with
the excuse of bankruptcy?
Mr. WONG: Yeah. A lot of the workers whom I've spoken to feel a lot of
resentment against the airlines because the airlines always blame labor for
their problems. It's true that around 40 percent of the costs of running an
airline amount to labor, but at the same time a lot of workers are saying,
`Well, management makes all these bad business decisions. They've been
running with a bad business model for years or decades. And now every time
that they have a problem they need to come to us, and they're asking us to
give money back to them.' And so they think--a lot of people are saying that
executives should go and look at the problems that they've created rather than
trying to come to these unions and asking for money back.
GROSS: Well, Edward Wong, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. WONG: Thanks a lot, Terry. It was my pleasure.
GROSS: Edward Wong is the aviation reporter for The New York Times.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Rosanne Cash's new CD. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Rosanne Cash's new album "Rules of Travel"
TERRY GROSS, host:
"Rules of Travel" is Rosanne Cash's first album of new material in a decade.
During that time she lost her voice, published a well-received book of short
stories, got married and had a baby. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of "Beautiful Pain")
Ms. ROSANNE CASH (Performing Artist): (Singing) Do you want to be honest?
Do you want to win? You could have it all if you could gracefully give in
like when a martyr knows he's a martyr, and looking in the mirror makes you
cry harder 'bout your glittering ball and chain. In love, in love with your
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Rosanne Cash commences her first new collection in 10 years with a song called
"Beautiful Pain" that works both as a pretty ballad and as a contradiction of
the pretty ballad form. The lyric critiques the melody. In singing about
someone who spends her life in love with being miserable, Cash acknowledges
the flaw in lesser songs on her previous albums, a propensity to use
heartbreak as an excuse for not having anything else to feel. In another
artist, such self-consciousness would be squirmily indulgent. For Cash, it's
a way back into the first-rate music she hasn't made for a good long time.
(Soundbite of "Will You Remember Me?")
Ms. CASH: (Singing) Will you remember me, like the circled stones on the
ancient hills? Will you walk along, where the wind can speak my secret name,
like the air you breathe? Will you remember me?
TUCKER: That's another song working on two levels simultaneously. On the
surface, Cash and her husband, producer John Leventhal, assume the voice of
someone yearning for the immortality that can be achieved even if no more than
one person remembers you fondly. Cash is also asking if her audience
remembers her, remembers her as an artist as good as her best hits, like
"Seven Year Ache" and "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me," whether the new
work she's making right now will be remembered in the seconds, hours or days
after you hear it. Again, the song works because it's so utterly lacking in
anything maudlin or false. Leventhal, a wonderful producer who's made a
songwriter like Jim Lauderdale sound as vibrant and full of strength as he
does his wife here, is unafraid to record the tune as a simple folk song.
It's this quality that makes Cash's duet with her father, the gravely ill
Johnny Cash, transcend any suggestion of exploitation. Listen to the way
father enters daughter's song like a former protector, admitting he now wants,
(Soundbite of "September When it Comes")
Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I plan to crawl outside these walls, close my eyes
and see, and fall into the heart and arms of those who wait for me. I cannot
move a mountain now. I can no longer run. I cannot be who I was then. In a
way, I never was.
Ms. CASH: (Singing) Watch the clouds go sailing. I watch the clock and sun.
Oh, I watch myself depending on...
Mr. and Ms. CASH: (Singing in unison) September when it comes.
TUCKER: Rather than picking up where her musical career left off, "Rules of
Travel" is more an extension of the short stories Rosanne Cash wrote during
her long silence. Each song has its own mood, its own small arc of drama, its
own independence from the story that came before it. For a collection of
songs, it's a very good read.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Rules of Travel," by Rosanne Cash.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Western Wall")
Ms. CASH: (Singing) I stand here by the Western Wall. Maybe a little of that
wall stands inside of us all. Now I shove my prayers in the cracks. I got
nothing to lose. No one to answer back. All these years I've brought up for
review. Wasn't taught this, but I learned something new. Had to answer the
distant call at the Western Wall.
Now I've got a heart full of fear, and I offer it up on this altar of tears.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.