Cuts to State Dept. budget ignite interparty row

A dispute over the State Department budget has pitted the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, against a fellow Democrat and head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and the Obama administration.

Mr. Conrad led an effort to slash President Obama’s $58 billion international affairs request for 2011 by $4 billion, a cut his committee approved last week. Despite protests from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and all her living predecessors, the senator stood his ground on Wednesday.

Flight schedule changes overwhelm agents, travelers

Have you been surprised to discover that your flight itinerary has little to do with your originally booked routing or departure and arrival times? Did you accept the changes, even though you didn’t like them? Next time, you could probably do better.

Schedule changes — those made by airline planning departments in advance, not those resulting from irregular operations — have always existed in the industry, but they used to be relatively rare and caused few major disruptions. In recent years, however, they have become so common that I’m actually surprised when a week passes without changes in any of my future trips…

U.S. offers India new nuke concessions

The United States has made new concessions as part of its civilian nuclear agreement with India, further angering arms control advocates, while New Delhi has yet to make it possible for U.S. companies to benefit from the unprecedented deal.

In the most recent accord completed late last month, Washington agreed to Indian demands to increase the number of plants allowed to reprocess U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel from one to two, with the option of another two if India’s needs grow in the future. At the same time, India thus far has failed to pass legislation that would release U.S. companies from liability in case of accidents related to equipment they have provided for two reactors expected to be built under the 2007 U.S.-Indian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.

Educating the flying public

Do you find that air travel has become a complex game of numerous airline rules, growing restrictions, oversold flights and never-ending fees? Do you feel knowledgeable enough and prepared to navigate that labyrinth before, during and even after a trip?

I often compare booking travel to a science — with so many different booking codes, fares, upgrade requirements, penalties and other conditions for changes and cancellations, it’s almost impossible for fliers to keep track of it all. That makes them heavily dependent on airline agents, and it’s well known that you can hear different answers to the same question…

U.S. downplays extremism in foreign outreach

The Obama administration is shifting the focus of U.S. public diplomacy efforts to play down the past emphasis on countering violent extremism in order to avoid offending foreign audiences opposed to terrorism.

Judith A. McHale, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said in an interview with The Washington Times that “a very narrow segment” of the world’s population is at risk of turning to extremism, and the policies adopted by the Bush administration should be broadened. “Looking back, there was such a focus on countering violent extremism that everything got swept into the same category or the same bucket,” Ms. McHale said.

Who gets first meal choice on board?

Meal choices in first and business class are hardly a concern for most air travelers, who have much more basic things to worry about these days, such as never-ending extra fees. Still, premium fliers are essential for an airline’s well-being, and they have certain expectations from the product they pay for.

It’s true that many passengers end up in the front cabins — especially on domestic U.S. flights — thanks to free upgrades, but they get them because of their loyalty to the respective carrier. Of course, there are also people who pay to sit up front — as few as they may be — so those cabins deserve serious attention…

State plans new public diplomacy posts

The State Department plans to create seven new senior positions to ensure that a public-diplomacy perspective is always “incorporated” in policy-making around the world, as well as to respond quickly to negative coverage of the United States in foreign media.

In an ambitious strategy that goes beyond any previous efforts to reach out to other countries, the Obama administration “seeks to become woven into the fabric of the daily lives of people” there, its top public-diplomacy official said Wednesday. “We must do a better job of listening, learn how people in other countries and cultures listen to us, understand their desires and aspirations, and provide them with information and services of value to them,” said Judith A. McHale, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.