- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

We may be in the twilight of the era of air travel as we have known it, which may or may not be a bad thing. Maybe it's not necessary to get from sea to shining sea in six hours.

We're about to find out.

The strategy for saving the airlines seems to be to make it as difficult as possible to fly anywhere and then send the president out to urge everyone to go about life as usual.

But going about life as usual, if life as usual includes air travel, means going to the airport by helicopter or motorcade, with sirens and outriders, and getting aboard a mighty Boeing 747 to be escorted through the unfriendly skies to your destination by a phalanx of F-16 fighters.

A piece of cake if you're the president, Bill Gates or one of the Walton heirs, but not even a bran muffin if you're not. And most of us are not.

Most of us are either staying home or driving the family car, and from the looks of the roadside motels across America, most of us are staying home. Says a motel manager in Orlando, where hordes of Disney World visitors have transformed Central Florida from one vast orange grove into one vast vista of flashing neon and endless acres of concrete paving: "I haven't turned on my 'no vacancy' sign once since September 11, and I may never get to turn it on again."

Air travelers will get another round of surprises this morning, when the airlines must meet the congressional mandate to search every trunk and suitcase before putting it aboard. Congress in its pursuit of infinite justice decreed a Jan. 18 deadline and didn't bother to provide either the guidance or the money to accomplish the deed. Since there aren't enough suitable X-ray machines or trained dogs to search the luggage for explosives, most airlines will merely match bags with passengers, who should take plenty of reading material and practice reading standing in line. Muslim suicide bombers should be pleased.

Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Association, insists her clients are ready, but she doesn't sound as if she believes it. "It's hard to say, but we don't expect a significant difference. We hope it's seamless, but one never knows."

Delta, the nation's third-largest carrier, will no longer accept checked bags at ticket counters or curbside locations less than 30 minutes before departure, eliminating one last vestige of passenger convenience, and other airlines will no doubt follow the example.

The screening system in place is actually a system for harassing the law-abiding while doing very little to deter evil-doers, and the security men resist doing certain things that would strengthen real security. Foremost among these things is allowing airline pilots to arm themselves. The law actually allows pilots to arm themselves now. The FBI is ready to train pilots in the use of pistols. Ammunition is already available that would not blow disaster-size holes in either passengers or the thin skin of the airplane. But the Department of Transportation won't give its approval.

Most passengers believe, mistakenly, that a lot has already been done to assure their safety air marshals, strengthened cockpit doors, screening machines, strip searches for tweezers, fingernail clippers, emery boards and other frightening weapons of mass destruction. It amounts to mostly bunk to fool the credulous. "I have yet to see an air marshal on any of my flights and I have not spoken to another airline pilot who has," Tracy W. Price, a Baltimore-based airline pilot, wrote in an op-ed commentary yesterday in this newspaper. "When I finally do meet my first air marshal, he'll take a seat in the passenger cabin where, in the event of a hijacking, he will face a well-trained team of attackers." Once the marshals are overpowered, the hijackers will find easy pickings in the cockpit.

But if the airline pilots get no respect, some people do. The president of Delta groveled to the radical Islamist Council on American-Islamic Relations, apologists for terrorist killers of Americans in the Middle East, and apologized profusely to a Muslim woman who had been required to remove her hijab, or head scarf, by screeners at Baltimore Washington International Airport. Baptist, Methodist and other infidel women are routinely asked to remove their scarves, lest they be hiding weapons, but a hijab is religiously mandated by mullahs who presumably would otherwise be transported into a rutting frenzy at the sight of uncovered female hair.

It's no wonder that certain railroad men, who thought they were well rid of passenger service when Amtrak was organized a full generation ago, are casting covetous glances at Amtrak now. A lot of travelers are looking for intercity trains. You can't drive a train into an office tower, and nary a congressman will be asked to drop his pants in the name of national security.

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