With convictions about as convincing as a pilots' sickout and as substantial as an in-flight "snack," national politicians are threatening to make air passengers' rights a campaign issue early in the 2000 presidential race.

Before you know it, we'll have debating wanna-bes accusing one another of being soft on hidden-city ticketing, with the sad prospect that an important issue will be trivialized in the maw of the political process.

Vice President Al Gore, for one, weighed in with his Airline Passenger Fair Treatment Initiative last week, a wide-ranging manifesto of legislation and regulations adroitly crafted to engender more public support than, say, a Be Kind to Airlines Bill or a Keep America Safe for Monopolies measure.

A few weeks earlier, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who may or may not be running for higher office, beat the VP to the aid and comfort of the ballot-bearing flyer by cosponsoring the Airlines Passengers Fairness Act.

Still to be heard from -- and don't think you won't -- are Democratic challenger Bill Bradley and Republicans Elizabeth Dole, George W. Bush et al.

Just because politicians are scrambling to co-opt one of the few issues on which the voting public seems to agree -- that the airlines continue to treat consumers cavalierly -- is no reason to dismiss the predictable rhetorical din as so much campaign claptrap.

There is a serious movement afoot to promote competition and get the airlines to do right, so it should surprise no one that astute politicians are jumping on the bandwagon.

Whatever comes of the burgeoning interest in this hot-button issue, we can only hope that the burden of any new rules and regulations falls squarely where it belongs, on the airlines, and not on travel agents, a group that long has championed the public's demands for a more equitable and competitive transportation system.

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