It's not terrorists that terrify us


IN AN extraordinary act of courage, Barbara Bush took a commercial flight to Indianapolis recently and -- this is the part that's troubling -- actually claimed to enjoy the experience.

The first lady's flacks hurriedly pointed out that she took the flight to demonstrate that airline travel is safe despite the threat of terrorism, and not because of any burning desire to lose her luggage or read an in-flight magazine piece on "The History of Borneo."

With all due respect to Mrs. Bush, however, what concerns airline passengers most is NOT the idea of some wild-eyed fanatic leaping to his feet in mid-flight and tossing hand grenades around like they're honey-roasted peanuts.

No, what worries us more is the idea of the plane plummeting 30,000 feet and splatting into an isolated ravine just because (for example) SOMEONE FORGOT TO TIGHTEN AN ENGINE BOLT!

In other words, while we applaud the first lady's motives, there are plenty of other reasons to be skittish about airline travel, such as, oh, drunk pilots.

I'm reminded here of the disturbing case of the Northwest Airlines pilot who sucked down 19 rum and Cokes in a bar last year, lurched back to his hotel room and a few hours later climbed into the cockpit for a flight bound for Minneapolis.

As a cheerful addendum to the story, the pilot had been drinking with his co-pilot and flight engineer, both of whom, in an act of incredible selflessness, limited themselves to seven pitchers of beer.

In a stirring defense, the pilot's attorney pointed out that those 19 cocktails did not really impair his client's ability to fly since -- I love this part -- HE WAS AN ALCOHOLIC AND HIS TOLERANCE FOR THE STUFF WAS INCREDIBLE!

Well. As Mrs. Bush can no doubt sense, we airline passengers were not terribly heartened to hear this. And we can't help wondering how many other pilots are taking to the friendly skies with bloodshot eyes, party hats and confetti all over their uniforms from the previous night's bash.

(This might sound paranoid, but I always peek in the cockpit to check out the pilot when boarding a flight. Mainly what I'm looking for is a reassuring presence. I don't want to see a pilot who looks like he's cutting jayvee wrestling practice, if you catch my drift. By the same token, I don't want to see a guy with goggles, silk scarf and World War I helmet reminiscing about his dogfights over the English Channel.

(But most of all, I don't want to walk past the cockpit and see the captain shaking up a fresh batch of margaritas while "Louie, Louie" blasts over the intercom. Call me a worrywart, but that's how I feel.)

Another thing that makes commercial air travelers nervous -- and don't take this personally, airline people -- is shoddy maintenance procedures.

We would sure feel better if, every once in a while, you airline people have a guy with a toolbox stroll around the plane and make sure everything is shipshape: both wings attached to fuselage, cabin roof bolted securely, no smoke pouring from the engines, that sort of thing.

True story: I'm on a flight leaving Miami and we're hurtling down the runway for takeoff when all of a sudden the pilot slams on the brakes and we go skidding into the grass.

Needless to say, we're all pretty shaken up. The pilot comes on the intercom and, with the standard-issue Chuck Yeager twang of his profession, says: "Folks, got a lil' warning light flashin' up here. We're gonna check out the problem and hopefully be on our way soon."

Terrific. So we get towed back to the terminal, where I'm expecting a team of ace mechanics in white jumpsuits to swarm all over the plane with sophisticated computers and the latest high-tech equipment.

Instead -- swear to God -- this old guy in overalls comes shuffling out of the hangar dragging a stepladder. And -- just what I need to see -- he sets the ladder up under the engine directly outside MY window.

Then he climbs up and bangs the engine a couple of times with -- stay with me, this is where it gets technical -- a wrench. Then he climbs down, folds his ladder and shuffles back into the terminal.

Maybe 30 seconds later, the pilot comes back on the intercom and says: "Folks, looks like we got that lil' problem straightened out and we'll be on our way."

True story, so help me.

And they wonder why I'm always signaling for the beverage cart.

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