Boycott the Unfriendly Skies

"It's fine to fly." I hear that repeatedly from my friends and family who have returned to the friendly skies: my niece-the-CEO in Memphis, my New York reporter friends, my boyfriend's mother in Florida. They, then, usually follow up that assurance with one or another pseudo-horror story: a minor scare on a plane, a horrendous wait at the airport, almost always a tale of some security hole that they witnessed.

It's what we Americans tend to do: pretend everything is OK when it's not, spend when our job is on the line, believe that violence doesn't happen to us regardless of our foreign policy. We now know that we're not immune to political violence here in the homeland, and the airwaves and newspapers are filled with how badly the airlines are still screwing up security. But we dutifully think we must get back on airplanes and help bail out that egoistic industry and by extension the federal economy. We buy the rhetoric, surrealistically even as the FBI has us under a perpetual state of "High Alert," whatever the hell that means, and Republicans hold airline security hostage to their vision of shrinking government.

Our hesitancy now to say we‚re afraid to fly is akin to feeling like a dunce in the old days if we actually paid attention to the flight attendants‚ security spiel: It is uncool to be afraid of flying. We're big boys and girls, and we're worldly; therefore, we must jump right back into the sky. Hogwash.

I'm relieved to see that, in these new, wobbly times, many US citizens are rejecting that pressure, albeit silently. We're just not booking flights. And that is exactly what we need to do both to the airlines and to the beltway game-players: boycott air travel. Now, I say we start proclaiming loudly what we're doing, and use it to make the skies a safer place and to force Bush's minions to give us effective federal security. If the president gets his own federal security, so should we the taxpayers.

I admit it: At first, I was simply too afraid to fly in a potential missile. I pulled out of a conference that was scheduled for the week after the tragedy in Washington (it was later postponed). When I started thinking more clearly, I realized suicide hijackers were unlikely to again take over an airpline. But within a week after 9-11, we had starting hearing the reports, especially from the flight attendants‚ union, about how less than 5% of checked baggage isn't examined for explosives in any way. Then came Anthrax and all those stressful hoaxes and overreactions to loose talcum powder in airplane toilets. I quickly decided that even though the odds of my being exploded in an airborne attack -- especially departing from the Deep South -- are pretty slim, I just don't want to participate in the collective fear and be escorted by fighter jets due to some dumb hoax. That just ain't no way to recoup a little Zen into my life. So my boyfriend and I decided to schedule driving trips for the foreseeable future, and just avoid the airline madness. Yes, a bridge can explode below us, but at least we won't be stuck in a vehicle with a bunch of hysterical people. Call us isolationist.

Somewhere in there, I finally realized that I'm taking the same action I have for years against companies I believed were bad for the public health and community well-being, from Coors back in college to Nike sweatshop products to Philip Morris/Kraft products to Wal-mart today: I'm boycotting an industry that has paid little attention to my safety. An industry that has spent millions of lobbying dollars trying to pass the security buck. An industry that is using this tragedy to cover its own bad management decisions and lay off thousands of employees. An industry that exploits contract workers (Can uninsured hourly workers be expected to ensure our safety?) I'm also talking back to a compassionate-conservative government that cares more about shrinking the pool of federal employees than about safety and the will of the people.

What's been surprising and delightful -- here comes the girly Zen part -- is how much fun we‚re having with our little boycott. True, it takes more time to travel by car (though the waits and delays factor much of that out). That means that we are allowing more time to drive, talk, see the countryside and read to each other. Like too many Americans, over the last five years, we've opted for short trips built around some business excuse, our laptops in tow. Although we work for ourselves and supposedly have more freedom, we usually don't unwind, spend enough time seeing a new place, get away from work for more than 24 hours at a time. We rush there, we rush back. We're too American for our own good.

Right now, I'm sitting in Washington during that conference that was postponed in September. Todd and I drove here last weekend, he took his laptop and went to visit his grandma nearby while I attended sessions, and we're going to take two days driving back, visiting his brother in Tennessee along the way. We're still basically working 9-to-5 during the week, but we're seeing loved ones and colorful foliage along the way.

To point, we're not rewarding the airline industry for their poor performance that, yes, enabled Sept. 11 to transpire. Of course, President Bush and the airline CEOs probably haven't noticed our personal little boycott, although they're sure aware that many Americans are staying on the ground. What I'm urging is that we get a little organized and populist about not flying; let's use it to our advantage by letting the industry and Congress know that we are refusing to fly except when absolutely necessary. If you agree, and especially if you're not flying anyway, proclaim loudly that you will not take off again until the emphasis shifts from bailing out the airlines to making flying safer for passengers and crew.

Some of you are groaning by now: the economy needs the airlines, blah, blah. I disagree: A little free enterprise would go a long way toward cleaning up a poisoned industry rife with greed and bad management (United lost $2.5 billion the quarter before Sept. 11). Now, using the tragedy as an excuse, the airlines are laying off workers anyway. Let them go belly-up, and let‚s see if safer airlines result: more realistic models that don't skimp on safety while begging for corporate welfare. As Darryl Jenkins of the Aviation Institute told ABC News this week: "It's not the government's business to keep an industry from losing money, or an industry from going out of business." (Meantime, Delta CEO Leo Mullen told a congressional panel that his industry has "remade" its security over the last eight weeks. But "tweaked" is probably a more accurate word, and guess who's ultimately paying for those changes.)

One regret: I hate to see honorable small businesses pay the price for this boycott, especially because they won't be welcome in the corporate soup line. Truth is, though, they're already in trouble because we're grounding ourselves out of fear. And while I can't prove it, I think they will be hit harder if citizens don‚t follow the strategy of a targeted boycott that might get quicker results rather than just stay out of the airwaves indefinitely. Our populist message should be clear: The American public supports federalized security and strict safety regulations in every part of the airplane and airport. Give it to us. Then, we might start flying again. Put that in the business plan.


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