MAXWELL:   Zealotry in the skies is frightening

2/25/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

An avid traveler, I spend more time on airplanes than the average person. Experts refer to me as a “frequent flier.” Even before I took my first plane trip as a 13-year-old, air travel fascinated me. I have never been afraid to fly. I love it.

Before continuing, I had better make one correction: I should have said that I have never been afraid to fly until now. Okay, I am not exactly afraid. I am nervous these days.

Two recent incidents have made me less willing to fly. One I learned about in the news, as did millions of other air travelers. The other happened last week while I was in the air over Texas. Both incidents, by the way, involved American Airlines.

The first incident occurred on Feb. 6. Capt. Roger Findiesen was piloting American Flight 34 between Los Angeles and New York, when the wires got crossed in his brain. Having recently enjoyed a missionary stint to Central America, the good captain went on the P.A. system and commenced the obligatory put-the-passengers-at-ease yarn.

But instead of talking about the mountain range below, the cruising altitude and the anticipated weather in Manhattan, Findiesen asked Christian passengers to raise their hands, and he encouraged them to share their faith with their non-Christian neighbors. Some fliers who complained to the airline said that Findiesen referred to “non-Christians” as “crazy.”

Several witnesses said that some passengers used their mobile phones to dial home and bid farewell to their loved ones. Instead of calming his captives, Findiesen had nearly scared many of them to death.

The second incident that makes me nervous about flying occurred last Thursday, as I flew with about 40 other passengers on one of those tiny, two-engine, American Eagle props. A few moments before we were to land, the flight attendant, a sweet-looking lady, perhaps in her 40s, delivered the usual end-of-flight stuff in a honey-soaked Texas drawl. But her last words sent shivers up my spine: “Have a God-blessed day.”

Innocuous and innocent, you say? Not hardly _ not after the Findiesen affair. Of all the expressions this woman could have chosen _ “have a nice day,” “have a wonderful stay in the area,” “enjoy your weekend” _ why did she choose one containing “God” and “blessed”?

I want my P.A. talk to be purely generic. Sure, it can be good-natured and even humorous. But I do not want any hint of the ominous, the religious or the apocalyptic. While I am flying, I want what Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot who writes the Ask the Pilot column for Salon.com, refers to as “the separation of church and sky.” I do not want anyone addressing the person piloting my 747 as “Reverend,” “Father,” “Pastor,” “His Holiness,” “Rabbi” or by any other religious title. I want a simple “Captain” at the controls.

I must tell you that the events surrounding EgyptAir Flight 990 are fresh in my mind. If you recall, on Oct. 31, 1999, Flight 990 nosed-dived into the Atlantic with 217 people on board. We may never know all of the details of the crash, but we do know that a co-pilot, Gameel al-Batouti, was recorded as saying, “I put my trust in God,” as the craft plunged into the ocean. The theory is that al-Batouti intentionally crashed the plane for religious reasons, taking his captives to heaven with him.

Save your outraged missives and phone calls. This tragedy makes me nervous, and nothing anyone can say will change my nervousness.

I am outraged, too, outraged that so few Americans are not outraged over how calmly the airline industry has taken Findiesen’s proselytizing 35,000 feet above the ground. What would have happened, you think, if Flight 34’s captain had said something like this: “I want all Muslims to turn to their non-Muslim seatmates and express your love of Allah and the Koran”? This is what would have happened: Dozens of fighter jets would have escorted Flight 34 out to sea, as far away from U.S. airspace as possible.

Sure, maybe we cannot identify a passenger jet that has been intentionally crashed for Jesus. But I know for a fact that Christian zealots have murdered their families and have denied their critically ill children medical treatment in the name of God. Jim Jones, the suicidal leader of the Peoples Temple, was a Christian. Remember David Koresh and his Branch Davidian sect?

Such zealotry scares me because all too often, it has a singular mission. That mission could be the elimination of heathens like me. I do not want to see religious zealotry in the U.S. president, my police chief or anyone else who has the power to decide who lives and who dies.

Airline pilots have such power.