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CAPTAIN HAS FINAL SAY IN LETTING PANICKY PASSENGERS OFF PLANE

Snow is falling, and a ground crew is de-icing the wings. Your seat belt is fastened, the runway is clear - and you want off the plane.

Can you get off? It depends, say those in the airline industry."There is no set moment at which we say, `No, you're never going to get off,' or, `Yes, you can get off.' In terms of reality, it's unlikely we'd return to the gate if we were second in line for takeoff," said Tim Smith, an American Airlines spokesman.

Some are asking themselves the question after the March 22 crash of a USAir jet at La Guardia Airport during a snowstorm. Flight 405 skidded off a runway on takeoff March 22, killing 27 people. Investigators are looking into whether the plane had ice on its wings.

Although none asked to get off the plane, several passengers were considering it.

"If we take off like this, we're all dead, we're all dead," Tom Merrill of Norwalk, Ohio, reportedly said, in the apparent belief there was indeed ice and snow on the wing.

"We are on the plane to hell. We're going to die," a fellow passenger quoted Merrill as saying. Merrill survived.

Most airlines handle such cases individually depending on the person, the complaint and the circumstances, said David Melancon, spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants.

A rule of thumb: If you're still at the gate, getting off the plane is no problem. But once the plane starts taxiing toward the runway. . . .

"If somebody's fearful, really concerned about their safety, in that case we probably would go back," said Joe Hopkins of United.

The decision is ultimately the captain's under Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

"It's important to emphasize that people need to trust us and our decision on when it's safe to fly. We make every effort to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to any weather condition," Smith said.

Snow makes passengers antsy, said Beth DeProspero, a flight attendant for 21/2 years.

"Once it starts snowing . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off. "People don't understand. They know it's hard to drive in, so they assume it's hard to fly in. And once they see so many delays, they start panicking."

It doesn't take bad weather to make some passengers jump. DeProspero recalled one flight where a passenger, for no apparent reason, began shouting, "Stewardess! I hate you! I want off the plane!"

The woman got her wish.

American's Smith said there is good news for passengers who ask off a flight: They can most likely get their money back or book another flight at the same cost.

"If they have a legitimate concern, we try not to penalize them," he said.