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Jewish World Review August 22, 2002 / 15 Elul, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

The 30-minute rule
and the mosquitoes | WASHINGTON Between the 30-minute rule and the mosquitoes, the answer may reside.

At least that is what the baggage guy and I were theorizing on a warm August morning at Reagan National Airport, as Sept. 11 approaches like a finish line, which of course it is not.

He and I were talking about the 30-minute rule, about which most Americans who have not flown into Washington in the last year may not know. The rule, put into effect by the Federal Aviation Administration, is this:

On all planes coming into Reagan National, for the last 30 minutes of the flight, passengers are forbidden to stand up, to walk into the aisle, to leave their seats for any reason. If a passenger should do this -- if a passenger, 25 minutes out of Washington after a cross-country flight, should make the mistake of trying to head for the bathroom -- the pilots are under orders to divert the plane to another airport. There is no leeway here -- if you get up, the plane speeds away from Washington.

The 30-minute rule seems to be a compromise worked out after the terrorist attacks last September. Reagan National was the last major airport to reopen -- there were some voices saying it never should. It is so close-in and so convenient to the heart of the District of Columbia -- and that is the problem. A plane on approach to Reagan National is literally just seconds away from the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon. Some security experts were advising: Shut it down for good.

That didn't happen. The 30-minute rule did (the rule also applies to flights leaving Reagan National, but what pilots are supposed to do if a passenger walks into the aisle during the first 30 minutes out of the airport is not clear -- since the plane is heading away from Washington, to divert back to, say, Dulles does not make a lot of sense).

My newfound acquaintance the Reagan National baggage handler and I were discussing the merits of the 30-minute rule, and what it says about our current national nervousness.

"Nobody's talking about terrorism and the mosquitoes," the baggage handler said.

"Yet," I said.

Which may be progress. In the weeks immediately following Sept. 11, every letter in the mail began to look like a potential carrier of anthrax; every telephone or electrical outage began to feel like something our enemies might be behind. We've sort of gotten over that; we have sort of accepted that when bad things happen, they aren't necessarily the work of terrorists. No terrorist is clever enough to do to the U.S. economy what the boardroom sleight-of-hand artists and their accounting magicians have done in recent months.

So -- thus far -- the mosquitoes are not being attributed to terrorists.

"They're going door-to-door in the District," the baggage handler told me.

Not the mosquitoes -- workers from the D.C. Department of Health. They had been ordered into neighborhoods to distribute larvicide tablets, and to hand out fliers advising residents how to protect themselves. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said that he would personally distribute some of the fliers.

The reason was the West Nile virus. It is carried by mosquitoes, and can and has killed humans. It is a frightening national situation -- and yet. . . .

"We kept hearing about bioterrorism, but no one's putting one plus one [mosquitoes and death] together and coming up with two [possible terrorist involvement]," my new acquaintance at Reagan National said. "You think the terrorists are going to hit us the same way as the first time? They know the airports are locked down. They're not going to do the same thing twice."

He's probably right about that. And it's probably healthy that mosquitoes-equal-terrorism is not a conclusion the public immediately jumped to, although the week is young. I had half-expected, during the terrible wildfires in the American West, that people would be asking if terrorists could be behind those, too. It would not have been a stupid question -- the fires endanger the U.S. in so many different ways, and they appear troublingly easy to start. A lot easier than taking over a plane and flying it into a building.

Meanwhile -- well-intentioned but grasping -- we institute the 30-minute rule. It may or may not be effective, but it accounts for the most common scene inside Reagan National: people coming off arriving planes and literally running toward the nearest restrooms.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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