by Eric Lucas
We have rules, people.
Sure, I feel sorry for those 47 passengers stuck on a Continental Express plane for nine hours at the Rochester airport, but just because they’re trapped in a device where excess flatulence violates EPA standards doesn’t mean they should be allowed outside the jet.
We can’t let people wander willy-nilly at our airports late at night because, heaven knows, even a blue-haired grandma or a nearsighted professor or a Nintendo-crazed kid might actually be a world-class terrorist who is going to hide in a broom closet until dawn, headlock the pilot of a 747 who’s having a triple latte, put on his uniform and commandeer the plane, take off, fly the jet into the command center at ESPN over in Connecticut, bring down sports broadcasting and cause widespread panic, tempting Vlad Putin to lob a few SS9s our way, starting World War III and causing the collapse of civilization and, not incidentally, indefinitely postponing the start of the NFL season.
Can’t have that. Right?
Wrong. Wrong, that is, on the whole paradigm in which we Americans frame air travel these days—security threats lurk under every bush and babushka; and yet the best commerce is utterly unfettered. In fact, we kind of have those two upside down.
Let’s take the security madness first: 9/11 was an appalling event, sure enough, but we have completely confused overreaction with safety. I fly up to 100 times a year, and my family is on airplanes many dozens of other times—believe me, I don’t want terrorists turning planes into examples or weapons. However, common sense has flown farther away than any plane could take us.
The passengers in Rochester were not allowed to leave the plane and enter the airport because, so said airline or airport officials, or both, there were no security screeners on duty. How likely is it that terrorists have mounted an operation in which they cleverly pre-select a plane they know will be diverted 100 miles by weather to a different airport? Not likely but you never know for sure?
Please. Air travel security has been transformed into a comedy in which toothpaste tubes are contraband and Benedictine mother superiors are body-searched. US screeners have detained a former Indian head of state, the most prominent US Senator (Ted Kennedy), a senator’s wife whose name resembled that dangerous singer Cat Stevens, and a global film star because his last name was Khan. Last winter a Muslim family was pitched off a plane because a couple highly reliable sources (teenage girls) supposedly heard them joke about crashing. I myself lost a jar of gooseberry jam at Heathrow because, well, you never know for sure.
We’ve been on high alert for eight years. Incessant warnings, innumerable signs and frequent policy statements tell all air travelers: Be suspicious. Regard any fellow traveler as a potential danger. What do you get when you create a climate of constant suspicion? Please reread George Orwell and Joseph Goebbels if you have forgotten the answer to this.
After the Rochester incident, Continental ‘fessed up to bad behavior and apologized, offering refunds and other recompense to the trapped passengers—none of which was it required to do under any law or regulation. Yep, since the glory days of the Reagan administration, in which air travel was turned into a free-for-all, airlines have to offer no compensation for bad behavior. You buys a ticket, you takes your chances. Stuck? Diverted? Trapped? A US airline can send you to the end of the runway for a half-day in Nosewipe, Alabama, and it’s OK. Had any of those passengers been held in a pickup for nine hours, say, by a cranky husband, that would be kidnapping.
But US airlines have fended off government “interference” for decades except, of course, when they want to declare bankruptcy and renege on billions of dollars in debts. They tell us the air travel industry will roll over and die, but European airlines have somehow managed to survive and thrive under passenger rights regulation.
So, to sum up: If an airline imprisons 48 passengers in a plane overnight on an airport runway, US law supports that. But woe betide those who have a shampoo bottle or a “funny” foreign name when they head to catch a plane.
There is an effort underway to redress some of these idiocies, the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights (www.flyersrights.org). They can’t spell, but they need all the help they can get to wedge some basic equity past Congress. Passenger rights are accepted legal institutions throughout the world—except in the good ‘ol USA. If you’re heading out to fly our friendly skies, you just better hope you actually get into those skies. And keep an eye on your neighbor—might be Vaslav Molotov, right there, you never know for sure.
Eric Lucas is a contributing editor to YourLifeIsATrip.com and an international travel and business writer who lives in Seattle; to learn more, visit his website, www.TrailNot4Sissies.com.