Plane travel might well be patriotic duty

Flying is more a simple matter of common sense

September 29, 2001|By Rob Kasper

Not so long ago, I was a lowly bargain hunter. Now I am a patriot. My change in status stems from the fact that I recently bought an airplane ticket, and Thursday President Bush pretty much compared airplane passengers to defenders of liberty.

My journey is not a mere short commuter hop, a puddle jumper. No sirree. This is a trek all the way across the country, from Baltimore to Portland, Ore. From sea to shining sea, with a stop in Cincinnati, on the banks of the Ohio River, in between.

I would like to claim that courage, pride and a sense of national honor motivated my ticket purchase. There might have been a smidgen or two of those ingredients in my decision. But essentially I was motivated by cost. To get a good fare, I had to buy the ticket 30 days in advance. The clock was ticking, so on Sept. 12, I clicked "purchase" on the computer screen and booked myself a round-trip e-ticket. Another part of my motivation was my blind belief in the safety of the nation's aviation system. I figured that after the Sept. 11 assaults and the subsequent heightened scrutiny of airport security, the system would be safer than ever. Reports I have read since, including a story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal reporting uneven security procedures at 20 U.S. airports, have not shaken that belief.

I can't say I am reassured by the prospect of the gun-toting National Guardsmen or state troopers watching me pass through metal detectors at BWI or by the fact that the soup ladles have been removed from restaurants in the Portland airport. But I am heartened by reports, also in yesterday's Journal, that commercial pilots are devising strategies to thwart hijackers. Those tactics range from instructing passengers to throw items at a declared hijacker to putting a threatened plane into maneuvers that would toss anyone standing up into the plane's ceiling. Now when a pilot says "return to your seats," everybody will be hopping.

As for a sense of duty, I am flying because I have agreed to serve as a judge at a game-cooking contest being held in a mountain lodge outside Portland. When it isn't raining, the landscape there happens to be gorgeous. If the contest were being held in a less scenic spot, my sense of duty probably would have slackened.

Once I bought the ticket, my biggest worry quickly became corporate downsizing. Even after Congress agreed to bail out the nation's airlines, many of the carriers cut flights and laid off workers. That seems like backward thinking to me. I thought the idea behind a $55 billion government bailout was to keep people working. I kept checking Web sites to see if my flights were canceled. As of yesterday, my flights on Delta were still on the schedule. Moreover, I also became concerned about reports that American Airlines and some of the other bailed-out carriers were initially considering not paying severance benefits to their idled workers. I did not want to be party to that. That idea seems to have since fallen out of favor.

In addition to stumbling into the role of "brave flier," I also lucked into my route. At first I really wanted a nonstop flight, which is faster. Usually the plane that makes a nonstop, coast-to-coast run is big and roomy. But there weren't nonstops to Portland operating out of BWI. So I grudgingly settled for a flight that connected through Cincinnati. Now I feel differently.

After Sept. 11, when four jetliners brimming with fuel for their nonstop, coast-to-coast runs were turned into the equivalent of cruise missiles, I like the fact that I am flying a smaller plane that checks in after a few hours at a nice, mid-sized Midwestern airport.

I also got lucky when I dismissed a suggestion from a friend that I book a flight out of Washington's Reagan National Airport. That airport has been shut down since Sept. 11. Yesterday, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said the airport would reopen when proper security measures are put in place, and an announcement could come next week. I didn't consider flying out of National because I am provincial: I live in Baltimore; I don't do Washington.

The truth is I am a long way from brave. In fact, I am a nervous flier. While I am rooting for the airlines to survive the downturn in business (especially US Airways, which I am counting on to carry my family back to Kansas City at Thanksgiving), I don't enjoy flying. I tolerate it. I do it now not out of any burning patriotic passion, but because when I factor in common sense and a reasonable amount of trust in the system, it makes sense to me. It is worth the risk.

Yet several days from now, when my flight takes off from BWI, I will hold my breath. That is what I do during every takeoff. I believe that holding my breath makes the plane lighter and prevents it from crashing. So far it has worked like a charm.

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