Nervous? Hah! NERVOUS?! Forget it! I am not the least tiny little BIT nervous about engaging in air travel these days!!

Why, even as I write these words, I am boldly sitting in a jet-powered commercial airplane, and I am cool as a cucumber. This is because we are on the ground at the famous Atlanta airport, which means we will all be dead from starvation long before we take off, because there are 1,450 aircraft ahead of us, including a number of biplanes still awaiting clearance to participate in World War I.

Sitting next to me are two pilots whose flight was canceled. I am not making this up. They work for Eastern Air Lines, one of a growing group of airlines that, as far as I can tell, do not actually own any airplanes. What they own is a large, modern and superbly maintained fleet of excuses for why your flight has been canceled. It's a real thrill to watch the gate crews for these airlines swing into action as departure time approaches:

"Ladies and gentlemen," the gate agent proudly announces, "the excuse for canceling Flight 219 is now arriving on our computer screen." Right on time!

The aspiring passengers cluster around and watch with nervous excitement as the gate agent frowns at the computer, then says:

"Flight 219 has been canceled because of ...

{Dramatic pause}


Ha ha! A new one! What will they think of next? The aspiring passengers, shaking their heads in wonderment at how far commercial aviation has come in just their own lifetimes, wander off to look for a working vending machine.

Not that I am complaining about being stuck on the ground. No, because the aviation industry is operating under a new policy called "deregulation," under which anybody who can produce two forms of identification is allowed to operate an airline, and alarming things can happen to the occasional flight that actually becomes airborne, as evidenced by recent news reports of planes whose engines were turned off when they were not in direct personal contact with the ground; planes taking off without important mechanical parts such as wings; planes bound for Lexington, Ky., but landing, due to navigational error, on the Lost Continent of Atlantis; etc.

But what really bothers me is the pilots. When I was a boy, all the pilots were much older than I am, but in recent years there has been a disturbing trend -- you may have noticed this -- toward pilots MY OWN AGE. I happen to be my own age, and I would never place a person such as myself in a position of responsibility. I live in constant fear that one day I'm going to get on an airplane, and there in the cockpit, wearing a uniform and frowning at the instruments, will be somebody I went to high school with, somebody like Billy Kirkwood, who once, at the Halloween Dance, on purpose, set fire to his own hair.

And let's not even TALK about what happens to luggage. I'm going to have a little sticker made up: YOU CAN CHECK MY LUGGAGE WHEN YOU PRY MY COLD, DEAD FINGERS OFF THE HANDLE. Everybody feels this way. Everybody carries everything on board. You see people stuffing Barcaloungers into the overhead racks.

TRUE ANECDOTE: Recently the remains of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, the only American executed for desertion during World War II, were supposed to be flown via TWA from New York, N.Y., to Detroit, Mich., so naturally they wound up in San Francisco, Calif. This really happened. Fortunately somebody managed to track Pvt. Slovik down before he earned a frequent flier bonus trip to the Far East.

Meanwhile, here in the Atlanta airport, we are getting our Safety Lecture.

"In the unlikely event that we make it as far as a body of water before we crash," the flight attendant is saying, "you can use your complimentary snack to repel sharks."

Next to me, the Eastern pilots -- one of whom is, no question about it, YOUNGER than I am -- are looking at the little safety card from the barf-bag pocket, and they are LAUGHING at it. This is the truth. I ask them what is so funny, and they point to the diagram of the plane floating perkily on top of the water, like a giant inflatable pool toy, while the passengers alertly rescue themselves.

"You mean the plane won't do that?" I ask.

"Listen," one of them says. "This plane floats about as well as a boat flies."

Finally, days later, we take off. The pilot is talking on the intercom. "Folks," he is saying, "on behalf of your entire flight crew, let me just say that I am setting fire to my hair."

I hope the beverage cart gets here soon.