Ten billion dollars is a generous estimate of the property damage done by last month's terrorist attacks. Since Sept. 11, the U.S. stock market has lost more than a half-trillion dollars in value. The difference between the two numbers is one measure of the new fear in the air - and of being in the air.

Our new fear of flying already has put the kibosh on a lot of pointless business conferences, fruitless sales meetings and stressful vacations. In doing so it has disrupted our economy, which is, apparently, premised on pointless business conferences, fruitless sales meetings and stressful vacations.

The economic consequences are sufficiently grave that President Bush asked all the members of his Cabinet to fly somewhere, anywhere, just to demonstrate to the American public that flying commercial isn't a death sentence.

Permit me to report that it isn't. Last week I flew the sort of cross-country route - Washington to San Francisco - targeted by the terrorists. I rarely enjoy flying, and I often dread it.

But my fear obeys a simple rule: The longer it has been since something bad has happened to a commercial airplane, the less happy I feel about boarding one of them. There's always a small risk that something bad will happen on an airplane, and that risk increases when it is ignored. It is most likely to be ignored after a long stretch of tranquility.

Take early September. It was, in retrospect, a very dangerous time to fly, and yet no one seems to have felt frightened or even wary.

Sit back and relax

The corollary to this rule is that when something bad has just happened, as it just now has, and everyone who works near an airplane is on edge, as they just now are, it is, briefly, safe to sit back and relax.

Which I did. The two cross-country flights were the most pleasant I've had in years. The airports and hotels on either end were empty and hungry for company. In that strange place called Business Travel Land, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a free upgrade.

The airplanes themselves were Meccas of kindness and civility, as the few passengers and flight attendants made an uncommon effort to get to know one another, and one another's baggage. There was a moment right after takeoff, I'll admit, when it was impossible not to imagine men leaping into the aisles with shouts of "Allah Akbar." But once the moment passed, I didn't give my safety a second thought, and I don't think anyone else on board did either. We were too busy being fawned over by flight attendants who were intent on making sure each of us wasn't the one with plans to blow up the plane.

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