Fear of Flying

You’re damned right I’m afraid to fly.

It’s not that I distrust the technology. The basics of heavier-than-air flight were successfully tested more that a century ago and I’m quite comfortable with them. I was born into the age of the jet airliner and have traveled on jets, propeller-driven airplanes and helicopters numerous times (once, halfway around the world and back).

What bothers me about flying is that these days a modern passenger aircraft is essentially the opposite of a panic room.

A panic room, if you haven’t seen the eponymous film or read about it somewhere, is a secure room — an entry-resistant vault — intended as a last refuge from intruders with violent intent. When the burglar breaks your window and crawls into your house, you run to the panic room, lock the door, call the police, and wait until it’s safe to come out.

Flying today amounts to running a gauntlet of X-ray machines, shoe-sniffing fetishists and wand rapists for the privilege of spending several hours locked up with a bunch of people in a small, isolated, airborne war zone. At any given moment from your arrival at the airport to catch your flight to your exit from the destination airport, you’re under the control of one of three kinds of people:

1) Panic-prone government bureaucrats, or

2) Panic-prone, risk-averse airline employees, or

3) Terrorists.

And for much of that time you’re cruising at 30,000 feet with no survivable means of exit.

I’m surprised that people still voluntarily allow themselves to be subjected to this kind of experience. I’m even more surprised that they actually pay to be subjected to it. I’ve flown once (St. Louis to New York and back) since 9/11. Once was enough.

As I sat down to write this column, the latest incident of airborne panic hit the wire. It’s the sixth such incident I’ve noticed this month.

This time, it was a drunk trying to open the airplane door. Ten years ago the cabin crew would have hog-tied him and stuffed him in the bathroom until the plane landed. These days, nuisances of the type call for flight diversions, sometimes with armed escorts (I’ve yet to see an explanation of precisely what use a fighter aircraft serves in such a scenario — it’s just more theater).

The root of the problem isn’t the airline employees. The airlines are caught between the rock of government security theater and the hard place of cost containment. Their flying “privileges” depend on whether or not the bureaucrats are happy. Their number-crunchers have determined that it’s cheaper to let the taxpayer pony up for fake “security” from government — and to let the passengers be actually, continuously terrorized by TSA instead of potentially, occasionally terrorized by al Qaeda — than to shoulder the costs and the responsibility of providing the real thing.

While real terrorists are certainly a real problem, they’re not much of a problem, or at least not as much of a problem as are the governments they attempt to influence by terrorizing you. If governments didn’t have the power to give terrorists what terrorists want, there’d be no point in trying to influence them through such methods, would there?

The rational response to 9/11 (aside from hunting down and killing its surviving perpetrators, a task which the US government has made little headway on despite eight years and a trillion dollars spent on the project) would have been to reduce (or, better yet, eliminate) government’s power, especially the power to comply with their demands or to take actions (like occupying foreign countries) which tend to generate such demands.

The government “solution” to the possibility that you’ll be terrorized by Osama bin Laden — a “solution” progressively implemented over the years since the 9/11 attacks, which themselves were made possible only by the government “solution” of passenger disarmament — has been to preemptively terrorize you for him by turning you over to the tender mercies of Paul Blart, Mall Cop.

And we’ve irrationally put up with it.

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