As war rages against terrorist-sponsor Iraq, Americans fear flying - but government and private air travel officials question whether they should.

The debate is especially timely now that air-fare wars appear to have begun, with America West and other airlines last week temporarily cutting prices in half to jump-start sales that had been sagging for weeks.One of those who says air travel is as safe as possible and that the public should not be overly fearful is Federal Aviation Administration News Division Director Paul Steucke.

He told the Deseret News that the FAA is doing all possible to increase airport security and said he personally has no qualms about flying anywhere - "or sending my family to fly anywhere."

Some of the increased security steps at airports include: closing terminal gates to all but ticketed passengers; canceling curb-side pickup of luggage to allow more thorough inspection; more use of "bomb sniffing" devices along with regular metal detectors; and increased patrols by bomb-sniffing dogs.

His confidence in those measures is high because he says he has on occasion tried to sneak weapons onto planes as part of FAA spot inspections of airport security. He has always been caught, as hoped.

But he concedes that the heightened security does remind people of the terrorist threat - and may worry them as much as it reassures them.

John D. Rome, chairman of the private Air Safety Institute, a man who has flown millions of miles on commercial airlines, agrees that "the threat of terrorism from the gulf war is exaggerated . . . the press has made too big of a deal out of it."

But he also says about terrorism, "I'm not absolutely convinced that any level of preparation can absolutely prevent it."

An example, he said, is that he once had a contest with a security manager at a Midwestern airport to see if he could smuggle through security a lens cap that they agreed would represent a bomb. The security manager put his staff on alert.

But Rome sneaked it through easily shortly afterward. He doesn't want to publicize how but said the FAA was warned of the hole in security systems he found. He said no system is foolproof.

Also, even if terrorists couldn't breach airport security as Rome did, he said it wouldn't be all that difficult to shoot down an airliner from the ground if terrorists really had such desire.

So he worries that extremely heightened security may not be able to prevent terrorism and might even help foster it - and fear. For example, someone considering murder for life insurance payments might try to blow up an airplane "because any plane blowing up in the next 24 months will be blamed on Iraq."

Still viewing all developments in perspective, Rome says that "terrorism is no more likely now than before." In fact, he says he worries about many other threats that could cause an air crash - such as bad weather or poor maintenance - more than he worries about terrorism.