INDIANAPOLIS, FEB. 14 -- Barbara Bush had a valentine for America's ailing airline industry today -- she flew commercial from Washington to Indianapolis.

"I'm not going to be held hostage by this at all," she said, explaining her decision to take a commercial carrier here to visit a veterans hospital at a time when the fear of terrorism has grounded many Americans and the recession has cut deeply into airline revenues. "I'm trying to say to the public that our airlines, our airports, have a lot of security and we're safe. People should feel free to fly if they have someplace to go."

At National Airport, without fanfare, she took the same route to the departure gate as other passengers for USAir Flight 257, though she paused at the top of the escalator to wave her cane at people in the terminal who recognized her.

A USAir spokesman said later the airline did not know Mrs. Bush would be aboard until about 15 minutes before she arrived for the 7 a.m. flight.

"We took no special precautions, had no special staffing. Her reservations were made in her press secretary's name," said Dave Shipley, USAir's assistant vice president for public relations. There was also a reservation in the name of Pierce, Mrs. Bush's maiden name.

"I didn't know about the trip myself until the Washington manager called to let me know somebody had called from Indianapolis to say everything had gone well with Mrs. Bush," Shipley said, adding that she made "a wonderful gesture." She flew home, however, on her government jet.

It was the latest in a long history of symbolic gestures from Mrs. Bush, ranging from making sandwiches for the homeless to hugging babies with AIDs.

"I'd been a little nervous, with the war going on, but I feel safe with her on the plane, said Kim Berkshire of McLean, Rosecroft Race Course public relations director. "She doesn't seem worried and maybe others shouldn't either."

Sitting in the coach section, Seat 3A next to the window, Mrs. Bush ate the same omelet and croissant breakfast served her 63 fellow passengers. Flight attendant Rochelle Wise said when she realized she would be serving the First Lady, "I said, 'Oh my God, this will be the time I drop something.' " She did not, however.

Scattered throughout the half-filled Boeing 737 were an undisclosed number of Secret Service agents and four members of Mrs. Bush's East Wing staff.

During the flight, she looked over a speech she was giving later and experimented with a Valentine's Day gift -- an electronic speller and thesaurus -- from the president, which she found on the seat of her White House limousine when she left for the airport.

"It's really none of your business but {the accompanying card} said 'I love ya,' " she teased three reporters who had bought tickets and tagged along. "He can't spell either."

She said the trip came about because she and President Bush had talked about travelers' fears and the airline industry's financial problems.

"Actually, I have asked to go commercially many times," she said, adding that she was told that "by the time you take the Secret Service" and members of her staff, the cost "comes out about even" with the government jet she uses.

"The last time I did this was, I believe, as the vice president's wife. I never traveled on Air Force planes as vice president's wife," she said.

Yesterday, Bright Star, the Bushes' name for her 12-passenger Air Force Gulfstream -- "it ain't my plane, really," she insisted -- followed her here to take her on to Grissom Air Force Base at Bunker Hill, Ind. There, she met families of the 305th Air Refueling Wing personnel deployed to the Persian Gulf War, the second such session she has had this week. Tuesday she flew to Griffiss Air Force Base near Rome, N.Y.

Asked what she thinks should be done when both parents must leave children behind while serving in Operation Desert Storm, she said that she and the president have discussed it.

"We both have our feelings about it," she said. "We think the Pentagon will come up with the right answer. But you know, we're in the middle of a very new time. We've got to work it all out." She didn't give any details but suggested, "You wait and see what the government comes up with."

At another point, she said she was told at Griffiss that the military wants to let "the military decide, not the Congress."

And her opinion?

"That's their business," she said of the military. "I'm going to treat them just like I treat George Bush."

During the flight, she did not circulate among other passengers because she said "they," whom she did not identify, asked her not to leave her seat. But turning to Howard and Barbara Morland of Arlington in the row behind her, she laughed and said, "We'll talk later." And they did.

"We talked about how safe flying is," said Morland, a defense analyst and former Air Force pilot, in a telephone call from San Francisco, his final destination. "Then I said, 'I feel strongly and can't resist telling you that I hope we don't get involved in ground war.' She said, 'I feel the same way but I do not lobby George Bush.' "

Morland said the First Lady also told him that she had started to cry while talking to flight attendant Tracy Joos of Alexandria about her stepbrother, who is in a tank group in Saudi Arabia.

"I know she did," Morland said later, "because I was watching at the time and saw tears in her eyes."

Joos wore a yellow ribbon on her uniform, and it reminded Mrs. Bush that for at least a week a large yellow wreath had been hanging in a center window over the front door at the White House. When nobody noticed it -- "I drove by twice and I couldn't see it either" -- she said she asked Chief Usher Gary Walters to move it outside or wrap the columns.

"I want to make the statement that we're supporting the troops -- so does George -- I don't want something you can't see. I think everyone supports the troops, protesters and all. I have no -- nor does George -- feeling about the protesters," she said. "We know they're supporting the troops, but I just want to get our word out."