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Jewish World Review Dec. 12, 2001 / 27 Kislev, 5762

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

Safety isn't the airlines' only worry -- IF the airlines are waiting for Americans to feel unafraid, and then to start flying again in the same numbers they did before Sept. 11, it's going to be a very long wait.

Because there's a fallacy in that assumption. The fallacy is that the reason people are staying away from airports is their fright. People want to fly, the theory goes -- but they won't until they get over the jitters born of that September Tuesday.

Certainly that is a part of it -- people who were nervous about flying before are even more nervous now, and people who were relatively calm are not quite so relaxed.

But the real reason it's going to take a very long time before the number of air passengers reaches its pre-Sept. 11 level has to do with something other than safety.

And you don't have to look back very far to understand it.

Do you remember when the heads of the airlines were promising elected officials that they would stop treating their passengers like livestock? It began in the summer of 2000, after officials of United Airlines lied again and again to passengers about the reasons for canceled flights. It was the weather -- that was one lie. Or "equipment" -- another lie. The real reason was a labor dispute with pilots -- and United's strategy was to keep the truth from the people who were purchasing the tickets. If United had told the truth -- had said that it could not guarantee that its flights would take off -- then passengers would have chosen another airline. So United took the money, and let the passengers fend for themselves during that summer of airport chaos.

The public's anger, not just toward United but toward the big airlines in general, led to a pledge from the airline industry: Passengers would come first. The industry would reform. There was a list of things the airlines would do to make flying a tolerable, if not pleasurable, activity again.

Remember that?

It's gone. Because of Sept. 11, passengers are being treated worse now than before -- the lines are longer, the demands on customers are more intrusive, no-frills service has taken on new meaning. But the passengers can't complain -- to do so would sound unpatriotic. In the name of safety -- and for good reason -- the airports are being run in a way that would have been unrecognizable before Sept. 11.

Because of this, the airlines are probably safer today than they were back in August. Which is why safety will not be the underlying reason people continue to stay away from the airports.

The real reason comes down to something that has been building for years, and that has been reported upon here even before Sept. 11 -- something that can be summed up in a slogan protesters used to write on signs they waved at Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state before he went off on farflung foreign travels:

"Is this trip necessary?"

People aren't asking it of politicians these days -- they are asking it of themselves. If flying, because of the new security measures, has become so frustrating -- the long lines, the need to arrive hours early, the searches, the identity checks -- and if to object would be improper because the measures are there for a valid reason, then there is an alternative:

Don't go, unless you really need to or really want to.

It's an elementary concept -- yet one that sort of got pushed aside during the years when business trips were undertaken as automatically as strolls to the mailbox, and when every weekend was a potential getaway vacation. Today, with the new flying regulations, staying at home -- both for business and for pleasure -- is beginning to seem like an attractive option. Not because it's safer -- but because it's less exhausting. Getaway? A getaway, all of a sudden, seems defined as not hitting the road. If a vacaction is a soothing shutting out of stress, then staying put is the new vacation.

That's what the airlines have to contend with -- and it is a formidable opponent. This is a sea change in American life. Wanderlust has long been the ideal. Now the lust is not to wander. And it's cheaper. As for the promised-before-Sept.-11 "passengers' bill of rights," you can forget it, for the duration. Is this trip necessary? Few trips, it turns out, are.

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

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