It is usually considered a virtue to "err on the side of caution." Better safe than sorry.

But in real life, with real airplanes and real people, it isn't that simple. When you err "on the side of caution," you still err.

And very often the outcome isn't a choice between "safe" and "sorry." Sometimes you end up sorry but no safer, which is how we would characterize AirTran's situation after it humiliated nine people, and outraged thousands more, to "save" 100 from the imagination and prejudice of a few.

As reported in our news pages today, AirTran off-loaded a family group of nine people after other passengers thought they overheard suspicious or inappropriate remarks about a safe place to sit. They happened to be Muslim, and they weren't wearing jeans and T-shirts.

The airline emptied the plane, rescreened all the passengers and baggage and then took off without the six adults and three children, who were en route to an Islamic religious event. AirTran declined to reaccommodate them even after the FBI determined that they posed no threat, an omission for which the carrier later apologized.

"Security theater" is the term we use to describe practices that offer little or nothing in the way of real security but are thought to make people feel more secure. The mass confiscation of nail clippers and disposable lighters at airport screening stations, now discontinued, is an oft-cited example.

In the case of the AirTran flight, some of what happened appears to have been security theater. But a good deal of it appears to have been the result of mere thoughtlessness and twisted priorities.

After FBI agents and TSA screeners found no threat to the aircraft or to other passengers, AirTran's first priority should have been the nine victims.

In attempting to err on the side of caution, AirTran ended up erring on the side of fear and prejudice. And that makes for the worst kind of theater.

Where's the joy?

We appear to be witnessing the collapse of Joystar, an event that should rekindle the debate about the role of hosting in travel distribution.

Hosting is a risky business requiring vigilance on both sides, and we're beginning to wonder if this business model entails too much risk and too much vigilance.

Host agencies large and small have found that a careless or dishonest contractor can cause them a world of hurt. Suppliers, and ARC, typically recognize a relationship only with the host. If the contractor screws up, the host's liability is absolute.

Independent contractors, as many Joystar agents are now discovering, are equally at risk when they have no standing with the host's suppliers. When an independent agent's client deposits and supplier commissions go to and through the host, so does control of the business.

For quite some time, people in the business of selling travel have been tinkering with ways to combine the benefits of size with the benefits of smallness: a marriage of buying power and marketing reach with personal service and specialized expertise. 

This quest has taken us through cooperatives, consortia, franchising, hosting and multilevel marketing, and various combinations thereof.

Some of these marriages appear to be working, but we are too often reminded that the divorce rate is still unacceptably high.

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