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How do we get fear out of flying?

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What a difference a week makes.

Before last Tuesday, not many people had anything good to say about the nation's airlines, especially those whose jobs require them to spend as much time in the air as they do at the office.

Late flights, canceled flights, bumped passengers, surly attendants, bad food, no food, lost luggage, picketing pilots and security measures that were a hassle for everyone save suicidal hijackers armed with "weapons" found in the aprons of every grocery store stock boy.

Recent columns I have written on airline problems have elicited a wave of letters and e-mails to the effect that Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific were the only way to fly. American air carriers? A pox on all their hangars.

Before last Tuesday it was hard to find anyone who thought flying the not-so-friendly skies was anything but a necessary evil and plenty who lamented the good old days, when passengers wore their Sunday best on airliners, attendants looked like supermodels and pilots all sounded like Chuck Yeager as they laconically asked us to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.

Most of us took their advice, even though we knew deep in our psyches that we had no business sitting in an aluminum tube at 40,000 feet zipping along at 600 mph. Even after all these years, there's something unnatural about it.

Will our air rage lessen now, even though the hassles of commercial flying are going to get even worse as more stringent security measures are put in place? Probably. For a while, anyway. In coming weeks, anyone who gets on an airplane will be happy just to arrive at his or her destination in one piece, and never mind the inconveniences.

But grief, fear and anguish never last forever. People still book flights after airline crashes. The sinking of the Titanic didn't stop ocean travel. We drive our cars to the funerals of people killed in auto accidents.

This, too, will pass. Meaning that we will eventually return to "normal," even though it will likely be a version unrecognizable from how we defined that word before last Tuesday. The need to return to routine seems to be hard-wired into our brains.

But never again will passengers on hijacked airliners blithely assume the bad guys simply want money, or freedom for their pals in prison, or even just to get to Cairo without buying a ticket. Will able-bodied men and women just sit quietly in their seats and keep their mouths shut, assuming everything will work out fine once the "negotiating" begins? I doubt it.

This view will not be welcomed by the authorities. Despite the heroic actions of some passengers on United Flight 93, which crashed in an empty field in Pennsylvania but likely saved the White House or Capitol Building or some other national symbol and the people who work in them, neither the feds nor the airlines are going to encourage passengers to become vigilantes the next time someone attempts to take over an airliner, as they surely will.

So what to do? Armored cockpits that are impenetrable from the passenger cabin? Gun-toting pilots and/or flight attendants? Flooding the plane with knockout gas in times of trouble? (The cockpit would be hermetically sealed, of course.) Before last Tuesday, those ideas sounded cockamamie, but these days everything's in play, at least for a while.

Many want to put "air marshals" back on planes, but with 40,000 daily flights, it's said to be too expensive. But if the people who have to be there anyway were trained in combat along with piloting or passing out drinks . . . maybe it's time to forgo airborne waiters in favor of armed guards.

If you have any bright ideas on what should be done to combat this new menace to air travel, let me know, and I'll put them in a future column.


E-MAIL: max@desnews.com