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Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 1999 /4 Teves, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The right to bear coffee -- FEDERAL OFFICIALS have long come up with goofy ways to spend their time and your money. But whoever came up with this year's hot-coffee-is-just-fine-during-takeoff decision seems to have broken new ground in the annals of the ludicrous.

The Federal Aviation Administration, after due deliberation, has informed the nation's airlines that from now on, when passengers come lumbering down the aisles as they board their flights, carrying cups of hot coffee they have purchased in the airport terminal, the flight attendants are not supposed to retrieve those cups I even during takeoff if the passengers want to keep drinking the coffee.

That's right. When you fly, you have to stow your tray table before the plane goes hurtling down the runway at high speeds; you have to put your seatback into the full upright position; you have to buckle yourself to your seat. All of this makes sense; you are in a steel tube powered by huge engines, picking up momentum by the second before lifting off the ground and screeching against all forces of gravity into the uncertain sky.

And now -- as the metal tube roars at a steep angle toward the clouds -- passengers have been empowered by the federal government to say to the flight attendants: I have a right to drink my hot coffee, and you do not have the right to take it from me.

This is the ultimate government-decreed entitlement, and it defies understanding. If you were to go on a roller coaster ride at an amusement park, and if you attempted to bring a hot beverage onto the ride, park personnel would evict you from the premises before letting you keep the steaming drink. What, are you nuts? Hot coffee on a roller coaster?

Well, a jet airplane on takeoff is considerably more dangerous than a roller coaster. See, there are no tracks beneath the airplane.

But the FAA has determined that passengers are free to drink their coffee as the plane is taking off. (Since the tray tables have to be up, this would seem to leave the coffee-drinking passenger only two options -- holding the cup of coffee in his or her hands as the plane lifts off, or balancing the cup of coffee on his or her nose.)

According to Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the FAA, the agency made this decision after a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines complained that FAA inspectors were not allowing passengers to bring coffee on board, but were letting passengers bring coffee onto other airlines.

"We needed to have a consistent policy," Duquette said.

So, instead of issuing a decision that would actually make sense -- saying that of course you can't drink hot coffee during takeoff, on Alaska Airlines or on any airlines -- the FAA ruled that you can drink coffee during takeoff on each and every airline.

It gets even more ridiculous. This applies only to coffee that you buy in the airport terminal and carry on board. If the airline serves you its own coffee before takeoff, flight attendants are required by the FAA to pick up those cups before the plane leaves the ground.

Got that straight? Bring your own hot coffee on board, and you're free to guzzle it as the plane takes off. Drink the airline's coffee, and you are forbidden (as well you should be) from keeping the cup as the pilot is powering off the ground.

Passengers who board the cramped airplane cabins trying to hold their carry-on bags, their various parcels, their young children and the cups of hot coffee they have just paid for in the terminal apparently don't want to have their steaming new purchase taken away from them -- even as the plane is hurtling against the pull of gravity.

Why people can't wait a few minutes, until the plane is leveled off, to ask for a cup of coffee is a question that might be worth asking -- except for the fact that we live in a society in which no one appears willing to wait for anything. And as far as the question of safety as passengers clutch onto open cups of hot liquid as the plane lifts off.

"The only way we look at it from a safety point of view," the FAA's Duquette said, "is that we focus (our safety concerns) on evacuation, and if (the coffee) is spilled on the floor, would it cause a hazard in an evacuation? We don't see that as a problem."

Of course not. Next: building campfires in the airplane's aisles for marshmallow roasts. But only if you bring your own wood.

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


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