SAN DIEGO — We white-knuckle fliers may finally earn the respect we have long deserved from our counterparts who bravely--or foolishly--take to the skies. Now we're not alone in our reluctance to leave terra firma. Even frequent fliers are choosing to postpone or at least change flight plans, being careful to avoid certain airlines, Arab countries and airports in Rome and Athens.
The most obvious reason for this new spirit of caution is the fear of being blown out of the sky by a terrorist bomb or gunned down while still on the ground by some fanatic whose cause is an enigma.
But before the terrorist scare became as real as it is for Americans, we white-knucklers had other phobias. We worried about the air traffic controllers, remembering when President Reagan fired every single one of them. We have always wondered who their replacements are and how they were trained almost overnight. Recent newspaper reports confirm our suspicions that the new controllers have less expertise but are just as exhausted, overworked, demoralized and underpaid as the former.
Friends who share my fear of flying remember every word of such reports, but frequent fliers usually tell me they read the first sentence or two and then go on to the comics or sports.
But no one could have missed the media proclamations that last year was the most dangerous year to fly since Orville and Wilbur got off the ground. And we white-knucklers predict more of the same.
We have memorized reports published recently on the advanced age of many commercial jets, which leaves them vulnerable to structural fatigue, a euphemism for cracking and falling out of the sky. At the same time, the airlines are spending less time and money on maintenance, and the Federal Aviation Administration is spending less time and money to check up on the airlines. We have also read articles questioning the qualifications, training and experience of the people flying all those old planes. We white-knucklers recognize a formula for disaster when we see it.
In San Diego, we have just discovered another formula for disaster. A skyscraper of a parking structure has been erected right at the end of our airport's runway. The huge jets flying into the city already have to dodge high buildings and make an unnaturally steep descent, and now they face what we would call a definite hazard. According to FAA guidelines though, the building is only an obstacle. An obstacle it will stay until a plane bumps the building, shears off its landing gear, and is forced to land on its belly--hardly the recommended procedure for getting passengers safely to ground.
During the recent mayoral campaign, both candidates said it never should have been built, but, as so often happens, our leaders realize we have a problem after the fact, when it is too late to do anything about it.
We white-knucklers have the solution--stay on the ground. We may be joined by a good number of those previously scornful frequent fliers.