Bush: "Get on Board"

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Bush: Come fly with us

It was an event the teetering-on-the-edge travel industry had been anticipating for weeks: George W. Bush's plan to make air travel safer. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta flew United into Chicago’s O’Hare airport to join Bush for a stump speech that had one stated goal: to get America flying again.

"One of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in our airline industry," Bush said, before announcing the government’s first big steps toward making that happen. Bush will introduce sure-thing legislation to:

  • Put $500 million of federal money into a fund to help airlines pay for tougher cockpit doors — "so our pilots will always be in command of the airplanes" — and "all kinds of technologies," namely transponders that can’t be turned off from the air, video monitors to alert pilots to trouble in coach, and even a way for air-traffic controllers to land planes by remote control. (The pilots unions are going to love that one.)

  • Put the federal government in charge of managing bag screening and airport security — and while the legislation chugs through Congress, give state governors money to put National Guardsmen at security checkpoints to help out.

  • Put more armed federal marshals aboard flights. They’ll be in plainclothes, of course, and Bush wasn’t about to give specific numbers. But "Americans will know there’s more of ‘em. Crews will know there’s more of ‘em. And terrorists will know there’s more of ‘em."

    "This nation will not live in fear," Bush said. "We have awakened to a new danger and our resolve is strong." A plane roared overhead, and Bush smiled. The crowd, which had been giving Bush party-faithful-style applause for his every line, broke into a chant of "U-S-A. U-S-A. U-S-A."

    The cloud in the silver lining

    Bush didn’t mention a decision that would have been a lot less easy to applaud — that he has authorized two mid-level Air Force generals to order the shooting down of errant airliners without calling Bush first.

    "If there’s time, we’d still go to the president," Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told the New York Times on Wednesday. "Otherwise, the standing orders have been pushed down to the regional level." All of which means that Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, a two-star at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, can pull the trigger on a potentially dangerous commercial aircraft without even calling his boss Eberhart, much less Bush.

    Not the kind of possibility you want to put in the minds of a crowd gathered at one of the nation’s busiest airports to hear the president tell them it’s safe to fly again. But a possibility nonetheless. In the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush did give the OK to down any commercial planes that imperiled Washington, and for a while, news reports had it that the plane that went down near Pittsburgh that day had been shot out of the sky by the Air Force. (It turned out to be the efforts of passengers that brought the plane down short of its target.)

    Are we really ready for this?

    Citing security concerns, the Air Force won’t lay out a scenario for killing 150 people in the air to save others on the ground, whether they are the many — such as with the World Trade Center — or the few, say, in the White House. The tradeoffs between the life of a voter and the life of a public official — or, for that matter, the numerological comparisons between innocents in the air and on the ground — have never been publicly debated. Perhaps it is better that way.

    Certainly countless lives could have been saved if the Air Force planes tailing the two WTC-bound airliners had fired away and put the debris in the Hudson River. The national trauma would have been greatly mitigated. But America, having averted the unthinkable, would then be left with something else — a government with American blood on its hands. Such stains, however, may demand an accountability that Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, a two-star at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, may not have the stature to offer.

    But George W. Bush is thinking positive these days. He announced that nine Cabinet members would soon be taking to the commercial skies to make various appearances, and before getting back on Air Force One, he once again sought to keep the airlines — and all the parts the economy that find themselves lost without them — airborne by dint of transferred bravery. "With all these measures we are returning America's airlines back to the American people," he said. "We will not surrender our freedom to travel."

    Now, about those flight delays…