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Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2001 / 24 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Can war come with
curbside convenience?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- CURBSIDE check-ins, as you may have heard, are back.

A month into the United States' war against terrorism, the availability of baggage-checking service at the curbs of airline terminal roadways has been reinstated. What is surprising about this is that after the murderous passenger-plane attacks of Sept. 11, the elimination of curbside check-ins was one of the first steps announced to assure the flying public that the government meant business. America's airports were going to run with military-style security; it was going to take longer to get onto a flight, but you could be certain that you were going to be safe.

Never mind whether the banning of curbside check-ins really did anything to combat terrorism; a case can be made that it doesn't really matter where you check your bags -- and that in fact it may be better to have potentially suspicious bags checked outside the doors of the airport than to have the bags' bearers carry them into the main building.

What is instructive here is that the reason for resuming curbside check-ins -- the real reason -- is that travelers had become accustomed to the convenience of it, and the airline industry is desperate to bring its customers back. Taking away curbside check-ins -- even in the name of national security -- was firming up passengers' decisions to stay away from the airlines.

But isn't safety the No. 1 concern of passengers these days?

Certainly it is a very big concern. The airlines know, though, that as the months go by -- as Sept. 11 fades into the past, and January and February eventually arrive -- potential passengers, despite their statements to the contrary, may not want to deal with the airtight security that has been promised. If it takes 1 to 3 hours to get up to and then past the metal detectors and hand-checks in the terminals, more and more people are going to look into alternate means of travel, or alternate ways to do business. Long-distance car services, trains, teleconferencing instead of trips. . . .

This is what the airline industry has to contend with: not that the public will think flying is unsafe, but that customers will decide that the means necessary to make flying safe are so time-consuming that they'd rather not fly. The return of curbside check-in is just the first concession to this. In the days following Sept. 11, the nation was told that curbside check-in was dangerous. Now, apparently, it isn't dangerous -- either that, or the airlines have convinced the government that if they're going to survive, they need to have the rules loosened.

When the public is told to trust the airlines, the stated context of that trust is safety. But even if the public begins to trust the security of airplane flights, truly trusting the airlines is a different matter. There is something about the quick, massive layoffs by the airlines -- especially after the federal government has agreed to pour billions of dollars into an industry bailout -- that just doesn't taste right. The airlines are being given all of that taxpayer money, yet they raced to get rid of tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of employees. Some longtime airline employees were informed of their dismissals by e-mail.

The eagerness of the airlines to get rid of their employees made it appear as if they had just been waiting for an opportunity to do this. Continental Airlines, especially, immediately after the terrorist attacks, all but leapt from the starting gate to lay its people off. It has been an unseemly spectacle; some might be tempted to accuse the airline executives who are throwing all those people out of work of engaging in war profiteering -- except they're not going to make any profits very soon, just minimize their shareholders' losses.

Try to remember what flying was like prior to 1973 -- when you could walk up to any commercial airline flight in the U.S. and get on board without passing through a metal detector, without having your carry-on items searched, without seeing a single checkpoint. That wasn't ancient history -- it was the early 1970s. Access to commercial airliners in America's airports was as free and easy as a stroll in a public park. Now the National Guard is moving into the airports. We tell ourselves this is progress.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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