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Reach for the skies, pardner



Published: Thu, January 17, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Everybody brought up on television or movie westerns knows the scenario. The valiant marshal can't rout the bad guys single-handedly, so he pins a star to the chest of an equally valiant volunteer and deputizes him in the name of the law. As a reminder of our American heritage, the scene has its place. But in a new incarnation, at 30,000 feet, the image engendered is one of vigilantism not valiancy.

On a recent American Airlines flight, a flight attendant, incapable of controlling a drunken passenger, handed a fire extinguisher to passenger Brian Giffin with instructions "to take [the unruly man] down, to spray him in the face or hit him in the head." If the airlines need on-board marshals, they should ask for them. But they can't deputize a passenger to handle the company's problems.

We recognize that American Airlines is particularly sensitive to on-board threats. Two of American's flight were involved in the deadly events of Sept. 11, 2001. And if it hadn't been for passengers on AA Flight 63 who wrestled accused shoe bomber Richard Reid to the ground, another 183 passengers and flight crew may have been endangered.

But an American pilot and flight attendant's response to the presence of an Arab American U.S. Secret Service agent in December demonstrated that the corporate culture of the Dallas-based airline needed serious attention.

The incident a week later on a flight from Los Angeles to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport shows little improvement has been made.

Resistance: Of course, it's difficult to face the challenge of unanticipated terror -- especially for an industry that has steadfastly opposed stringent security measures on the grounds that they were too expensive, too much to ask of passengers, or just too inconvenient.

But inebriated and unruly passengers didn't suddenly become a problem. Flight attendants and other passengers have complained for years about the dangers faced from airborne louts.

To hear American Airlines tell it, however, & quot;American has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to unruly passengers, & quot; one that has been in place for years but is being more strictly enforced since Sept. 11. While Giffin's predicament was unusual, airline spokesman John Hotard said it could become more common because of heightened security concerns after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

We're not buying that absurd line of reasoning, and we don't think many airline passengers would either. Let the airlines hire professional security personnel and leave passengers to watch the wild West in the in-flight movie.




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