The downed Malaysia Airlines jet has passengers and airlines alike asking new questions about safety, wondering why the company stuck to a flight path directly over a volatile conflict zone. President Obama says it appears the plane was shot down by a missile from Ukrainian land controlled by pro-Russian forces.
Ukrainian authorities had closed the flight path up to 32,000 feet. But Flight MH17 was above that altitude. Even before the incident, some airlines avoided the area altogether. Malaysia Airlines, however, stayed the course, as did several other carriers. A less efficient flight path means more money spent on fuel, crews and maintenance. So it’s not a decision carriers take lightly.
“This industry has gotten so dog-eat-dog and so competitive that they’re looking at the bottom line far more than they ever have in the history of this industry,” says University of Portland finance professor Richard Gritta, who has long studied commercial aviation.
The strict cost cutting of modern airlines is striking to those who remember aviation’s glamorous golden age. Retired American Airlines pilot Jim Tilmon remembers taking a plane hundreds of miles off its planned path to avoid nasty weather and provide a more comfortable ride for passengers.
“I did burn a little bit more fuel, but it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t so much that the airline got upset,” Tilmon remembers.
With airlines facing high fuel prices and relentless shareholder pressure, pilots today don’t expect their employers to be so lenient.
Mark Garrison: Airlines use computer modeling and human judgment to choose flight plans. Basically, they look at two things, says aviation consultant George Hamlin.
George Hamlin: The first thing is safety. The considerations after that are basically you would like to do that at the lowest possible cost.
A less efficient flight path means more money spent on fuel, crews and maintenance. So it’s not a decision carriers take lightly. Ukrainian authorities had closed the flight path up to 32,000 feet. But Flight MH17 was above that. Some airlines still avoided the area altogether, paying more for extra safety. Malaysia Airlines stayed the course, as did several other carriers.
Richard Gritta: This industry has gotten so dog eat dog and so competitive that they’re looking at the bottom line far more than they ever have in the history of this industry.
University of Portland finance professor Richard Gritta says a longer flight path may only cost a few dollars more per seat. But multiply that over all the flights and it takes a real bite out of profits.
Gritta: It becomes a fairly big deal, especially if you’re flying that route several times a day.
Strict cost cutting is why you don’t often hear captains of today’s commercial jets talk like Jim Tilmon.
Jim Tilmon: I’ve flown hundreds of miles around weather to keep my passengers secure and safe and comfortable.
Tilmon was a longtime American Airlines pilot, whose career included air travel’s golden age.
Tilmon: I did burn a little bit more fuel, but it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t so much that the airline got upset because I did that.
With companies facing high fuel prices and shareholder pressure, pilots today don’t expect their employers to be so lenient. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.
He was a passenger on the downed Malaysia Airlines flight. Those who knew researcher and activist Joep Lange say he was a giant in the battle against AIDS — and truly "a scientist with a heart."
Quinn Schansman, a dual U.S.-Dutch citizen, was born in New York City. His father reportedly lives in the San Francisco area.
In Congress, there’s been a big, heated debate about a bank most people probably haven’t heard of: The Export-Import Bank of the United States, commonly called the Ex-Im.
The bank’s charter expires in September, and many conservative Republicans would like to kill it, while others are calling for reforms.
Conservatives say the Ex-Im bank is bloated, inefficient, comes at a high cost to the taxpayer and is really just a form of corporate welfare for big companies, including Boeing.
But Democrats and some Republicans say Ex-Im helps small businesses enter foreign markets, helping boost exports.
To help explain what the Ex-Im bank does and put it in context, we took a little field trip to a fabric whole seller in New York City who once did business with the bank. We also spoke with entrepreneur and investor Jan Boyer* in Washington, D.C.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story provided the misspelled the name of Jan Boyer. The text has been corrected.
Smartphones hold so much of our lives. From our photos to our emails to our texts, there is a lot of personal info housed on our smartphones. Hayley Tsukayama, tech reporter for the Washington Post, joins Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O’Leary to tell listeners what they should be doing with their smartphone before selling it.
Selling your smartphone is a quick way to make some cash. But a study published earlier this week by the security firm Avast, in which the firm bought some used Android phones and recovered thousands of "erased" personal files, stands as a good reminder that you have to think carefully before you sell.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the latest news from the Gaza Strip, where Israel has undertaken a ground invasion against Hamas operatives. It's the first time in five years that the Israeli military has conducted a ground operation.
Malaysia is reeling from the loss of a second plane in five months. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the reaction from Malaysians in the country's capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted Friday on a recommendation that Congress lower certain mandatory drug sentences retroactively. The move could cut almost two years off of thousands of prisoners' sentences.
Until a few weeks ago, Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk had been running the faltering U.S. effort to put Israelis and Palestinians on a path toward peace. He speaks with Robert Siegel about the violence in the Gaza Strip and Israel's unfolding ground invasion.
Just three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics that perform abortions, lawmakers there are rushing through a replacement.
The U.S. says that evidence suggests the missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was fired from separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports what is now known about the crash.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had been carrying several researchers and activists on their way to a global AIDS conference in Australia. Among them was Dr. Joep Lange, a leading researcher and former president of the International AIDS Society. He was a giant in the field and a mentor to many.
The Federal Communications Commission is getting inundated with comments on its proposed net neutrality rules.
The folks weighing in include regular people, business owners and musicians. The band OK Go ganged up with a bunch of other artists to write a letter objecting to parts of the proposed net neutrality rules. They don't like the idea that broadband companies could charge extra for "fast lanes" on the web, which could give some content providers an advantage. OK Go's lead singer Damian Kulash fears big-pocketed content providers would push little guys out of the way online.
"Our big breakthrough was a video we made in my backyard for $5. Suddenly, a band could get directly to their fans with a massive video that we'd made for almost no money," he says.
Kulash thinks the FCC's current proposal could crimp, not advance, that kind of open access to an online audience.
On the other side of the debate sits the telecom industry, which doesn't like the idea that it might be regulated as a utility. Telecom companies say that could kill investment and innovation.
The FCC says it's putting extra processes in place so all public input is seriously considered. The agency's commissioner and senior staff get summaries of the comments.
But law professor Christopher Yoo at the University of Pennsylvania says the FCC is too constrained by court rulings on its proposed regulations, and can't take all views into consideration at this point.
He doubts that the final version of the rules will be shaped by posts and emails from average Joes.
"They will be used by whichever side of the debate it favors as rhetorical flourish," Yoo says.
Blair Levin, a former chief of staff with the FCC, is more hopeful that every comment counts.
"This is obviously one of the issues about which the public cares most that the FCC will be dealing with," Levin says.
Levin thinks the FCC still has a lot of options on the table. The agency hopes to finalize the rules by year's end.
Editors' Note: American Public Media Group, Marketplace's parent, submitted comments to the FCC generally in favor of net neutrality.
Here’s a handful of student loan numbers for you. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, current student loan debt is nearing $1.2 trillion. An estimated 7 million borrowers are now in default; behind on $100 billion in debt.
All of which adds up to a juicy market for companies looking to cash in on people with student debt troubles.
This week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed suit against two student-loan debt-settlement companies. The suits allege that Broadsword Student Advantageand First American Tax Defense tricked borrowers into paying upfront fees for student loan help the companies didn’t provide.
According to one of the filings, First American Tax Defense promised enrollment in a fake “Obama Forgiveness Program.”
Madigan said these companies run ads that entice people excited to call, “and what they really find out is that these are scam artists [who] want their money.”
In a 2013 report, the National Consumer Law Center found that “a new ‘student loan debt relief’ industry has sprung up in response to the demand for borrower assistance and the dearth of reliable resources.”
“There’s a lot of debt, it’s very confusing,” said NCLC attorney Persis Yu. “I think some borrowers are desperate and they are turning to places that look like they might be an easy fix.”
She says many of these debt-settlement companies mischaracterize government programs as their own.
They charge borrowers as much as $1600 for services, like debt consolidation, that are available from the government for nothing.
“What’s making this possible is a lack of awareness of repayment options,” said Mark Kantrowitz, student financial aid expert from Edvisors.com.
He says the government should run an ad campaign of its own, so students with debt know what help is available for free.
If you are struggling to pay back your federal student loans, here are your options:
- Direct consolidation: If you have multiple federal student loans you can consolidate them into one payment and extend the life of the loan to 30 years to lower monthly payments.
- Extended repayment: Borrowers with more than $30,000 in debt can extend the repayment period from the standard 10 years up to 25.
- Graduated repayment: Borrowers who choose extended repayment can also set up monthly payments that start low and grow every two years.
- Income-based repayment: Your monthly payment is pegged to your income and can be adjusted annually to account for income fluctuations. The term of the loan can also be modified to go beyond 10 years.
- Income contingent repayment: Your payment based on your monthly income and any outstanding debt is cancelled after 25 years.
- Pay-as-you-earn: For borrowers who took out loans after 2007 and have a family or financial hardship. This income-based plan offers the lowest monthly payment options of any income-based plan.
How to spot a scam:
- High-pressure sales tactics, like suggesting your interest rates are about to skyrocket, without debt consolidation.
- Charging fees before debts are settled
- Touting a "new government program" or suggesting they have special access to government programs
- Claiming to represent the Department of Education or other government agency
- Offers of discounted pay-back rates, gifts or special incentives
- The hard sell, plain and simple
The federal government and other organizations offer free, legitimate relief for those who have fallen behind on their student loans:
The biggest thing I own is my mattress. Some people have trucks or boats or houses or heirloom chests of drawers or ambitiously large desks or impressive, ill-conceived contemporary art pieces, but the most impressive thing I own just this big, squishy rectangle.
It might not seem like much, but getting this mattress was a major life step for me. When I first moved to Portland, Oregon six years ago, I was determined to furnish my room through only things I could get for free. This sounds like a bohemian ideal, but factoring into my ethics was the fact I was dang near broke. It was 2008 and I had just graduated from college. I was working an unpaid internship as a reporter at a newspaper and the headlines were full of lines about bankers fleeing their offices as the economy went into freefall. Personally, the anxiety about not really having a paying job was compounded by the slightly more pressing concern of not really having a bed. So when a roommate offered me his old futon frame and pad from the basement, claiming it was like “sleeping on a cloud,” I gladly took him up on the offer. That futon turned out to be a cloud made of stabby wooden railroad slats. But it was my accursed futon now, and I was grateful.
I used to talk about this lack of major possessions as a romantic thing: I wouldn’t want to own anything that I couldn’t throw in the back of a van at any moment, because—who knows?—maybe in a month I’d decide to travel through Latin America and change the world. Honestly, though, the truth is that even when I got a job, soon after Obama was inaugurated, I was scared to buy anything remotely nice—like a car or a sofa that didn’t smell like cats. I know I’m supposed to view large, expensive items as investments. I feel like I’m supposed to go into debt for things because they’ll wind up helping me in the long run. But I came of age in a time when the absurdity of the whole credit system became tragically clear—the people running the economy reminded me of Gene Wilder’s version of Willy Wonka, mysterious men running around, gleefully pulling levels that unleashed sweet rewards on some and chaos on others.
When I was a kid, I remember debt looming over my parents like a silent, gloomy cloud. The day they finally paid off their credit cards, they cut them up in front of me and we ordered pizza to celebrate—they paid with cash. Years later, I spent a week helping teach down sodden houses in Mobile, Alabama, after Hurricane Katrina tore through and flooded whole neighborhoods. I spent days shoveling peoples’ possessions into giant piles in the gutter—sofas, entire moldy bookshelves, water-logged TVs. Then when I moved to Portland, I often reported from the county courthouse, where every morning there was an auction of foreclosed homes on the front steps of the building.
All signs seemed to point to the conclusion that big possessions—requiring a mortgage and a car payment and a cable bill—would become an anchor, dragging me underwater. I realized, slowly, that I’m not a bohemian free spirit…
I’m a frugal cynic.
Back on that horrible slab of a futon, I toughed out the nights for two years, until my very sweet new boyfriend finally cracked. He told me in no uncertain terms that I either needed an actual mattress or he was never sleeping at my house again.
“But!” I protested, “I can’t just buy a mattress.” Since I’d been getting regular paychecks, I had enough money to buy something better than the filthy heap that haunted my floor. But I was nervous to committing to owning a real, adult thing that I might someday see ruined.
But he had a point. So I dutifully took the bus to IKEA and walked up the trail to the bedroom section to the gauntlet of modernist bed frames, eyeballing pricetags. Around me, cheerful couples were buying mattresses, joyfully betting on a stable future full of new furniture and reliable middle-class jobs. That’s the IKEA spirit. I felt so out of place that I turned heel and left in defeat.
After another night, gathering my resolve while lying on the wooden planks, I gave it another shot, heading to a family-run mattress store near my house. It was empty when I walked in. Without the oppressively upbeat surroundings, I actually liked looking at the beds. I flopped on one after another. They were so comfy. It dawned on me that a bed was not a dangerous luxury item that would trap me. This was a bed. Come bull market or bailout, you need a bed. It’s okay to buy simple things that I’ll appreciate for years and years, even if I don’t know what those years will look like.
I paid $300 for a springy queen size mattress. And I felt good.
I’ve had that mattress for four years now. At the end of each chaotic day, it’s nice to come home to stable and cozy place.
And besides, worst case scenario, it can always double as a life raft.
More than 46,000 inmates can petition for early release starting next year, unless Congress acts soon.
Marvel announced earlier this week some changes to two of their most prominent characters. A woman will pick up Thor’s hammer and Sam Wilson — a black hero currently known as Falcon — will pick up Captain America's shield.
The current Thor will soon become unworthy of Mjolnir. Only a select few can wield the legendary hammer, and whoever picks it up becomes the new Thor. That change and the new Cap both came naturally from their series' respective writers, says Wil Moss, an editor at Marvel. Moss works with Thor writer Jason Aaron.
"It just kind of sprung from where he was taking the character," Moss said. "Thor has a tradition of other people holding the hammer and being Thor for a while."
Marvel has taken other steps to make its pages more diverse in recent years. When Spider-Man died in the company's separate"Ultimate" line, he was replaced with a black Hispanic teenager. The publisher also introduced an all-female "X-Men" comic last year and relaunched the series "Ms. Marvel" in February with a Muslim, Pakistani-American heroine. These shifts have drawn acclaim, but changes to Thor and Captain America might be the most sweeping and visible yet.
Moss says besides the creative reasons for shaking up these characters, these changes make sense as a way to build a new audience for Marvel.
"It’s just a way to broaden our audience, to make characters that more people would be interested, to reach different groups of people."
This new Thor might look different, but Moss says she'll quickly jump into the same adventures as her predecessor.
"Right off the bat she's going to be fighting Frost Giants," Moss says. "She's getting right into the thick of things."
Israel has unleashed repeated military offensives in the Gaza Strip but has never permanently suppressed Palestinian rocket fire. We look at what is, and isn't, different this time.
Fifteen years after a landmark report called attention to the deaths and injuries caused by medical errors, safety experts told a Senate panel that more needs to be done to protect patients.
An Ebola survivor ran to the front of the room where community health workers were meeting in Sierra Leone. Everyone applauded. It was a moment of joy in a grim time.