After USAir crash, even routine flights unnerve

September 19, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

"What airline?" the driver of the shuttle bus asked as I threw my suitcase on board and climbed in after it.

USAir, I told him.

He looked at me for a second and began to say something, then decided not to.

It was exactly 24 hours after USAir Flight 427 had crashed and burned outside Pittsburgh, killing all 132 on board.

I had made my USAir reservation before that happened, but I had been faced with the same decision as thousands of air travelers: Do I stick with USAir? Or do I switch?

After all, it was the fifth fatal air crash for USAir in the past five years. It was the second fatal USAir crash in two months. And the last three fatal crashes of regularly scheduled commercial airliners in America all have been USAir.

On the other hand, what if I switched airlines and that plane crashed. Wouldn't I feel really stupid?

The driver shut the door and we headed for the airport.

I made the reservation way before the crash, I told him.

"I didn't say anything," the driver said.

USAir has the only jet that flies from BWI to Raleigh-Durham, I said. United flies props, and I don't like props.

"Why not?" the driver asked.

Uh, jets have always seemed safer to me, I said.

"Right," the driver said.

Here I was about to get on a Boeing 737, the same kind of jet that had just crashed, because I thought jets were safer than props. An act of real genius on my part.

The driver let me off at the terminal, and I walked the five miles or so to the last USAir gate.

When I had made my reservation, there had been no aisle seats left on my flight. But I had a sneaking suspicion things had changed in the past 24 hours.

Got any aisle seats? I asked the person behind the counter.

"You bet," she said, punching the keys on her computer. "No problem."

As she was speaking, one of the cockpit crew for my flight passed behind me. He didn't have his jacket on, so I couldn't tell whether he was the pilot or co-pilot or whatever, but he was pudgy and carrying a big bag from Roy Rogers onto the plane.

Say what you want about USAir's safety record, they have a great selection of fast-food joints in their terminals.

But now I wanted to stop the guy and say: "Hey, when was the last time you had your cholesterol checked? Do you really need a greasy burger? Are you going to take the skin off the chicken before you eat it? How are you feeling tonight? Ready to make a quick decision should the engine thrust reversers activate in flight?"

I didn't really say anything to him, of course. I just looked at his Roy Rogers bag and scowled at him. He must have thought I worked for Burger King.

I got on board and, for the first time in years, I took the air safety information card out of the seat pocket in front of me. On it was written in big letters: B-737-200.

The plane that crashed outside Pittsburgh was a Boeing 737-300.

I don't know what the difference is -- I guess a 300 seats more people -- but it made me feel slightly better that I was on a slightly different kind of plane.

We took off on time. It had not taken long to board the passengers. There were whole rows of empty seats in the back.

Some people, I guess, had decided that the United prop flights didn't look so bad. Even more had probably decided that a five-hour drive didn't look so bad.

When we were a few minutes from landing in Raleigh-Durham, the pilot came on the loudspeaker, talking in that patented pilot-drawl they all use:

"We're, ah, about eight miles away from touchdown, and, ah, we have, ah, nine miles visibility and 71 degrees, and, ah, the winds are calm. Thank you for flyin' USAir."

It occurred to me that the 132 people on board the jet that crashed had heard a similar message. They had crashed just six miles short of touchdown. The visibility had been good, the weather clear, the winds calm.

My plane made it just fine, of course, and on the return flight I was barely nervous at all. Not even when the woman next to me crossed herself just before we landed.

She gave me a sheepish grin, but there was nothing for her to be embarrassed about. I figure every little bit helps.

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