Stowaway makes fear of flying worse

October 07, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd

LET ME admit upfront that I am one of those people who spends every moment on an airline flight convinced the plane is about to drop out of the sky and slam into the ground like a lawn dart.

So the story of that 12-year-old boy who sneaked on a flight to St. Louis didn't do much for my nerves.

Maybe you heard about this little monster.

The short version goes like this: The kid got in trouble at his Fairfax, Va., elementary school and was sent to see the principal.

But instead of going to face the heat, he did what any kid would do in that situation: He freaked out and hopped a train to Reagan Airport in Washington.

Then he caught the first flight out of town. OK, fine, that's not what most kids would do.

Most 12-year-olds, if they're the type to skip out of school, would probably end up in a park or a mall with a pack of Marlboros and a bunch of their thuggish, skateboard-rat friends.

But this kid must have seen too many of those "Home Alone" movies, with that little brat Macaulay Culkin.

Because he jumped on the Metro and headed for the airport.

And when he got there, he somehow managed to sneak past the metal detectors to the boarding areas.

Then, without a ticket or a boarding pass, he managed to sneak onto a TWA flight bound for St. Louis.

Once there, he finally called his mother and told her where he was. The mother reported the boy was "practically hysterical" on the phone. I'd be hysterical, too, if I was 12 and my mother asked, "So how was school?" and I had to answer "Are you familiar with the baggage claim area at the St. Louis airport? The one near the Hertz counter?"

Hey, I'm surprised the kid didn't just rent a car and keep on going.

Needless to say, Reagan Airport officials were greatly embarrassed by the incident.

Asked to explain this egregious security breach, they said the kid must have somehow "blended in" with a family.

Anyway, for those of us who are nervous fliers, this was reassuring.

It's nice to know security is so tight that someone can just "blend in" and walk onto an airliner.

This will certainly be a comforting thought the next time I'm 30,000 feet above the Ohio countryside.

See, the first thing I do when I board a flight -- after taking my usual middle seat between the fat guy with a laptop and the frazzled mother with a squalling baby on her lap -- is look around at my fellow passengers.

Then I play a little game called Find the Terrorist.

I'm looking for the militia nutcase, disgruntled Klansman or psychotic religious zealot who will suddenly stand in mid-flight, pull the Bible/Koran/Aryan Manifesto from his pocket, wave a vial of Semtex and announce that we're all going to Kingdom Come in the next 10 seconds.

Now I see how tough it would be for one of these loonies to get on board. So tough that even a 12-year-old can do it.

Anyway, in the wake of this incident, airports all over the country are said to be re-examining their security systems.

Which is a good thing, let's face it.

A lot of people grumble about all the security hassles they endure at airports, but not me.

Look, I don't care if the people at the ticket counter ask to see my driver's license a half-dozen times. I don't care if they shine a hot light in my face and grill me for hours on where my luggage has been. I don't care if the baggage handlers go through my suitcases with Spot the Bomb-Sniffing Dog and pass around my shaving kit so everyone can slap on some cologne.

If it helps prevent Billy Bob Nutcase or the latest version of Carlos the Jackal from getting on my flight with a dozen sticks of dynamite strapped to his chest, I'm all for it.

In the meantime, if I were an airport official, I'd start by tightening things at the X-ray machines and metal detectors.

Some of the people working those checkpoints are extremely shaky-looking.

Either they're socializing so much you half expect a card game to break out, or they're so sleepy-eyed you want to set up a cot for them.

At some of these places, you could probably toss a Stinger missile in the change tray and be waved on through.

And they wonder why I'm always waving for the beverage cart when I fly.

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