September 22, 2023

Frequent Flier: The Perfect Soundtrack

My father took me on my first flight in a Piper Cub in the 1960s. It was a bright red taildragger. I imagined I was a young Red Baron. My first commercial flight was on a Boeing 707 when my family moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts back in 1972. I was thrilled at the power-up of takeoff.

After college, I studied for my own pilot’s license in a Piper Tomahawk. I found out then that unfortunately my love of flying and my ability to fly were not in perfect alignment. My instructor told me I had “ground shyness,” which translates to fear of the ground. It was a healthy fear perhaps, but it made it difficult to land the plane, which is pretty important when you’re a pilot.

He also said that I had a bit of “attitude shyness,” which is a fear of flying other than straight and level. He found that out after we deliberately stalled the plane into a spin. I told him, “Let’s never do that again.” But recently, I flew a Boeing 747 simulator, which is so realistic that pilots are allowed to accumulate simulator flight time as real flight hours. I did land successfully.

I know that professional pilots are very well trained. And after thousands of landings in my traveling career, I had few if any memorable experiences, until recently. I was flying in an Airbus A320, a workhorse kind of plane. The seats were six across, and I was sitting in coach. We were flying from Madrid to A Coruña, which is in the northwest corner of Spain. At the time, it was experiencing some bad weather, with high winds and rain.

As we were making our final approach, there was this really sweeping, dramatic orchestral music playing over the speakers. As the tension in the music built with accelerating downward arpeggios, you know, like in a movie when the music lets you know the monster is coming or the bad guy is right around the corner, we started buffeting around violently. It was like we were in some disaster, horror or war movie and were synchronized to the soundtrack.

I looked at the Spanish woman next to me in the middle seat and she was consoling her young daughter, who was absolutely terrified. I tried to smile at her, but we were all obviously very uncomfortable. The music was still blaring, building tension perfectly, as the bucking of the airplane got worse. The music wasn’t making our nerves any better.

Finally, we could see the ground and we could see that the plane was going to hit hard. The music stopped for a moment, and then we hit the tarmac with a loud boom. The plane rolled for a little while and then slowed. The music came back on. It was clear then that the music had reached its climax and it too had slowed to a final coda.

Just as the plane veered off the runway, the music faded out for good. By this time, the entire plane had arrived at the same conclusion about the music. I know it was purely coincidental, but still very weird.

The mother and her young daughter looked at me, relieved. This was a landing no one on the plane would ever forget. Our flight had a soundtrack, and it was perfectly written.

By Bruce Welty, as told to Joan Raymond. E-mail:

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Hurricane Sandy and the Disaster-Preparedness Economy

FOLKS here don’t wish disaster on their fellow Americans. They didn’t pray for Hurricane Sandy to come grinding up the East Coast, tearing lives apart and plunging millions into darkness.

But the fact is, disasters are good business in Waukesha. And, lately, there have been a lot of disasters.

This Milwaukee suburb, once known for its curative spring waters and, more recently, for being a Republican stronghold in a state that President Obama won on Election Day, happens to be the home of one of the largest makers of residential generators in the country. So when the lights go out in New York — or on the storm-savaged Jersey Shore or in tornado-hit Missouri or wherever — the orders come pouring in like a tidal surge.

It’s all part of what you might call the Mad Max Economy, a multibillion-dollar-a-year collection of industries that thrive when things get really, really bad. Weather radios, kerosene heaters, D batteries, candles, industrial fans for drying soggy homes — all are scarce and coveted in the gloomy aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and her ilk.

It didn’t start with the last few hurricanes, either. Modern Mad Max capitalism has been around a while, decades even, growing out of something like old-fashioned self-reliance, political beliefs and post-Apocalyptic visions. The cold war may have been the start, when schoolchildren dove under desks and ordinary citizens dug bomb shelters out back. But economic fears, as well as worries about climate change and an unreliable electronic grid have all fed it.

 Driven of late by freakish storms, this industry is growing fast, well beyond the fringe groups that first embraced it. And by some measures, it’s bigger than ever.

Businesses like Generac Power Systems, one of three companies in Wisconsin turning out generators, are just the start.

The market for gasoline cans, for example, was flat for years. No longer. “Demand for gas cans is phenomenal, to the point where we can’t keep up with demand,” says Phil Monckton, vice president for sales and marketing at Scepter, a manufacturer based in Scarborough, Ontario. “There was inventory built up, but it is long gone.”

Even now, nearly two weeks after the superstorm made landfall in New Jersey, batteries are a hot commodity in the New York area. Win Sakdinan, a spokesman for Duracell, says that when the company gave away D batteries in the Rockaways, a particularly hard-hit area, people “held them in their hands like they were gold.”

Sales of Eton emergency radios and flashlights rose 15 percent in the week before Hurricane Sandy — and 220 percent the week of the storm, says Kiersten Moffatt, a company spokeswoman. “It’s important to note that we not only see lifts in the specific regions affected, we see a lift nationwide,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We’ve seen that mindfulness motivates consumers all over the country to be prepared in the case of a similar event.”

Garo Arabian, director of operations at B-Air, a manufacturer based in Azusa, Calif., says he has sold thousands of industrial fans since the storm. “Our marketing and graphic designer is from Syria, and he says: ‘I don’t understand. In Syria, we open the windows.’ ”

But Mr. Arabian says contractors and many insurers know that mold spores won’t grow if carpeting or drywall can be dried out within 72 hours. “The industry has grown,” he says, “because there is more awareness about this kind of thing.”

Retailers that managed to stay open benefited, too. Steve Rinker, who oversees 11 Lowe’s home improvement stores in New York and New Jersey, says his stores were sometimes among the few open in a sea of retail businesses.

Predictably, emergency supplies like flashlights, lanterns, batteries and sump pumps sold out quickly, even when they were replenished. The one sought-after item that surprised him the most? Holiday candles. “If anyone is looking for holiday candles, they are sold out,” he says. “People bought every holiday candle we have during the storm.”

If the hurricane was a windfall for Lowe’s, its customers didn’t seem to mind. Rather, most appeared exceedingly grateful when Mr. Rinker, working at a store in Paterson, N.J., pointed them toward a space heater, or a gasoline can, that could lessen the misery of another day without power.

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Fed to Defer New Efforts for Growth

The nation’s central bank said Wednesday that it would complete the planned purchase of $600 billion in Treasury securities next week, then pause its three-year-old economic rescue campaign, leaving in place existing aid programs, but doing nothing more, for now, to bolster growth.

At the same time, the Fed said the economy was expanding less quickly than it had predicted. It now projects a growth rate of 2.7 percent to 2.9 percent in 2011, and 3.3 percent to 3.7 percent in 2012. Both estimates are markedly below its last forecast in April.

As growth has sputtered this year, economists have pointed to higher oil prices, the Japanese earthquake, bad weather, a lack of confidence. The unifying theme was that spending and investment would surge as these temporary impediments subsided. The Fed’s latest forecast, however, reflects the surprising weight of deeper and more intractable problems, including unsustainable public and private debts, the wreckage of the housing market and trade imbalances.

Roughly 25 million Americans were unable to find full-time work in May, and the central bank projects that most of those people will remain unemployed for years to come.

“We don’t have a precise read on why this slower pace of growth is persisting,” the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, said Wednesday at a news conference. “Some of the headwinds that have been concerning us, like the weakness in the financial sector, problems in the housing sector, balance sheet and deleveraging issues, may be stronger and more persistent than we thought.”

The markets had been up for much of the day but began falling after the news conference started. The Dow Jones industrial average, which was as high as 12,207.99 in the morning, turned sharply lower after 2:30 p.m., ending the day down 80.34 points at 12,109.67.

Mr. Bernanke dismissed for now any possibility that the Fed would extend its efforts to stimulate growth, saying that the economy was moving in the right direction. The slow pace of the recovery justified the Fed in continuing its existing efforts, he said, but not more.

The Fed’s policy board, the Federal Open Market Committee, voted unanimously to maintain its two-year-old commitment to hold a benchmark interest rate near zero “for an extended period.” Mr. Bernanke said the language meant it would not raise interest rates for “at least two or three meetings,” pushing back to November the earliest moment rates could rise. Economists consider it likely that the central bank will hold interest rates near zero well into next year.

The board also voted to maintain the Fed’s portfolio of more than $2 trillion in Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities by reinvesting principal payments. The board did not indicate how long this policy would continue, a decision that Mr. Bernanke described as intentional. Fed officials have said that allowing the portfolio to dwindle is likely to be the first step when the central bank decides to begin the withdrawal of its aid programs.

“The economic recovery is continuing at a moderate pace, though somewhat more slowly than the committee had expected. Also, recent labor market indicators have been weaker than anticipated,” the Fed said before Mr. Bernanke’s news conference. “However, the committee expects the pace of recovery to pick up over coming quarters and the unemployment rate to resume its gradual decline.”

Automakers, for example, already are planning sharp increases in production to compensate for the disruptions caused by the Japanese earthquake. Prices for new and used cars have climbed sharply in recent months, suggesting that there is considerable pent-up demand.

The Fed has undertaken a series of unprecedented programs since 2008 to arrest the financial crisis and to revive the economy. The central bank first paused its efforts in the spring of 2010, as the economy appeared to be finding its own momentum, only to begin a new round of aid later in the year, as those signs of progress proved to be fleeting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 22, 2011

An earlier version of this article understated the size of the Federal Reserve’s portfolio of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. It is more than $2 trillion, not $2 billion.

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Mixed Results From Two Major Retailers

Lowe’s, the home improvement chain, said its profit fell 6 percent, held down by economic conditions, while the department store chain J. C. Penney said its profit rose 6 percent, helped by cost cuts and a strong reception to its exclusive merchandise.

Lowe’s said its results were also hurt by bad weather and cut its full-year forecast. The company’s results also fell short of Wall Street forecasts.

Lowe’s reported net income of $461 million, or 34 cents a share, down from $489 million, or 34 cents a share, a year earlier. Revenue in the period, which ended April 29 and was the first quarter of Lowe’s fiscal year, dipped 2 percent to $12.19 billion, with revenue at stores open at least a year down 3.3 percent. Analysts surveyed by FactSet expected earnings of 36 cents a share on revenue of $12.54 billion.

Lowe’s cautioned in February that consumers were still holding back and its earnings were at the low end of its forecast of 34 cents to 38 cents a share for the quarter.

The chief executive, Robert A. Niblock said in a statement that the company was also dealing with difficult comparison to a year ago, when federal rebates raised demand for appliances.

For the full year, Lowe’s expects earnings of $1.56 to $1.64 per share and an approximately 4 percent revenue increase. The chain previously forecast earnings of $1.60 to $1.72 per share on a 5 percent revenue rise.

Analysts predict full-year earnings of $1.70 per share on revenue of $50.9 billion.

Stock in Lowe’s, which is based in Mooresville, N.C., fell 2.8 percent in early trading Monday.

J. C. Penney said it earned $64 million, or 28 cents a share, up from $60 million, or 25 cents a share, a year earlier. Revenue in the period, which ended April 30 and was the first quarter of Penney’s fiscal year, edged up to $3.94 billion from $3.93 billion. Penney’s revenue at stores open at least a year rose 3.8 percent.

Analysts predicted earnings of 26 cents on revenue of $3.94 billion, according to FactSet.

“We are successfully implementing our merchandising initiatives, with strong gains in both our men’s and women’s apparel businesses,” the chief executive, Myron E. Ullman III, said in a statement. “Additionally, the steps we have taken to manage our expenses position us to increase the flow-through of sales to the bottom line.”

Under pressure from shareholders, Penney has cut costs, including closing some stores, outlets and call centers. It is also finishing up closing its catalog business after announcing in November 2009 that it would stop publishing its twice-a-year “big book.”

Mr. Ullman promised more cost-saving initiatives, including trimming marketing expenses and streamlining sourcing operations. The company expects to save about $25 million to $30 million by 2013, with about half of that in 2012.

He expects the company to achieve an earnings target of $5 per share for 2014.

Stock in Penney, which is based in Plano, Tex., rose 4.5 percent in early trading.

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