- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

On Venezuela

I believe Thursday's editorial, "Venezuela's severe contraction," misses the point. All would be fine if President Hugo Chavez were a democrat, but he's not, as he has shown repeatedly in the past four years, and more so in the past few weeks.
Mr. Chavez has had four years of unprecedented oil revenues, control of absolutely all government powers, more than 80 percent popular support by the second year of his presidency, a custom-made constitution and a completely servile military. Given such positive circumstances, don't you think that if there really were the political will to carry out Mr. Chavez's so-called Bolivarian revolution, he couldn't have done something great for the nation by now?
But there is no Bolivarian revolution. Instead, what we have here is a new communist stronghold in the making. If you review the history of Cuba under Fidel Castro, you'll realize that this man is following Mr. Castro's project, step by step. Mr. Chavez needs the destruction of the nation to build upon its ashes something that has nothing to do with the opposition's hostility toward him.
The vast majority of Venezuelans has finally woken up to the grim reality of what is behind this man and the certainty that if we do not put up a fight, we risk losing our country to communism.

RAQUEL HOCHMAN
Caracas, Venezuela

United gets a bum rap

I would like to take exception to several points offered by Stephen Moore in his column "Union tactics cost jobs" (Commentary, Thursday).
First, Mr. Moore's assertion that "discount airlines … like Jet Blue and Southwest, are whipping United in every category of service and efficiency" is in error. According to the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Reports, United Airlines whipped Southwest and other major airlines in several categories. These include United's being No. 1 for on-time arrivals during 2002 versus Southwest's fifth-place performance. In January, the latest period reported, United had zero percent of its flights arrive late 70 percent of the time or more; Southwest, in contrast, had 0.1 percent arrive late 70 percent of the time or more. With regard to January flight cancellations, United had the fewest in the industry, with 0.3 percent versus sixth-placed Southwest's record of 1.3 percent.
Finally, for the period October through December 2002, United ranked sixth for denied boardings (0.81 per 10,000 passengers) while Southwest placed ninth (1.19 per 10,000 passengers). In most areas of "efficiency," United clearly outperforms Southwest.
Mr. Moore's statement that federal officials "cited out-of-control salaries as a primary cause for turning down United's recent $1.5 billion bailout request" is also misleading. The Air Transportation Stabilization Board (ATSB) listed four reasons for turning down United's request:
Unreasonable revenue projections.
Cost structure (no mention of union salaries).
Underfunded pensions.
Loan collateral considerations.
Although I'll concede that cost structure would include union salaries, Mr. Moore also must concede that it includes non-labor costs as well as management and nonunion salaries. The ATSB was careful to point out that even if United implemented cost cuts, its competitors could do the same and thus weaken United's relative position.
In essence, industry salaries could spiral downward, with each airline undercutting the other. It's important to note that United's unions offered to take substantial wage cuts to help secure ATSB loan guarantees. However, in light of the reasons mentioned above, the ATSB turned down United's request.
In the third paragraph, Mr. Moore states that "machinists, pilots and flight attendant unions have refused to budge in renegotiating contracts. …" This is not true. At United, pilots already have taken a 29 percent pay cut and have submitted proposals for additional concessions to help save the airline. Other work groups at United also have offered to take substantial pay cuts. Thus far, United and the unions have not reached a permanent solution, but they are trying hard to reach a settlement.
If Mr. Moore's goal is to point out ways to save the airlines, I'm afraid that his misstatements and half-truths are doing more harm than good. The economic state of the airline industry is a result of a complex combination of circumstances.
Several of these factors are beyond the control of the airlines for example, the added costs of government-mandated security, historically high fuel costs, record-high taxes on tickets and the prospect of war with Iraq. Any of these factors alone would be painful. In concert, they are devastating.
Add to this the fact that ticket prices often are lower today (in constant dollars) than they were 25 years ago. Most industries would not do well in these circumstances. In fact, you probably are aware that other segments of the travel industry (both unionized and non-unionized) are suffering losses for many of these same reasons.
Like many others, Mr. Moore points out that Southwest and Jet Blue airlines are able to make money. He is correct. However, I wonder whether Mr. Moore believes that all airlines would be making money if they simply had Southwest's labor contracts? Trying to compare Southwest to United is like trying to compare Motel 6 to Hyatt. You get what you pay for.

JIM SMART
Pilot
United Airlines
Great Falls

VA defends its medical record

Bill Garner's March 7 cartoon depicting a corpse in a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) waiting room is as wrong as it is ugly and unfair.
The number of veterans treated by the VA has increased from 2.9 million to 4.3 million since Congress liberalized access to comprehensive VA care in 1996. We expect it to rise to 4.6 million in fiscal 2003. Last fiscal year, the VA treated veterans in 46.5 million outpatient visits.
There is no question that the incoming tide of additional veterans, combined with the challenge of providing health care with a fixed budget, produced unacceptable waiting times for some veterans seeking care for the first time. Our waiting lists peaked last year at about 300,000. Most of those veterans now have been seen. Even with additional veterans seeking care, we have slashed the waiting list to about 200,000. As I told Congress last month, we expect to eliminate it altogether.
The cartoon is also just plain unfair to the 180,000 men and women who provide high-quality VA health care to the veterans who come to VA in ever-increasing numbers. They are the public servants who have created the very quality that is attracting veterans by the millions.

ANTHONY J. PRINCIPI
Secretary
Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington

Taking care of turkeys

Given his short life, the recent death of President Bush's "pardoned" turkey is tragic and, sadly, not at all surprising (Inside the Beltway, Nation, Tuesday). Animals that are kept at animal parks, petting zoos and roadside zoos are typically given only the bare minimum to live. Oftentimes, the bare minimum is not enough for an animal to survive.
When cared for properly, turkeys can live for more than five years. It's unfortunate that it has taken an animal's death to inspire changes at the park. I hope the surviving turkeys will live a little longer and be a little less miserable now that park managers have agreed to fix some of the problems.
I hope this turn of events encourages people not to visit places that profit from putting animals on display.
The turkey pardoning is one tradition that the public and the turkeys can live without. Besides, more animals could be "pardoned" if we just stopped eating them.

SARAH FARR
Chevy Chase

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