Air Travel After 9/11: Just Get Through It

To understand how very different the experience of flying was before Sep. 11, 2001, consider this story from Felix Hernandez about ordering pizza. In 1999, Mr. Hernandez was the pilot on a Trans World Airlines flight from New York’s Kennedy International Airport to Chicago that was nearing takeoff when it was called back because of weather. The gate that the Boeing 727 had left from was already filled, so Mr. Hernandez was told to taxi the plane to a parking area to wait out the delay.

To anyone who has been in a similar situation, what came next will seem all too familiar. At first it was only going to be an hour delay, then the control tower said to wait another hour, then another. After three hours, everyone was still sitting on the airplane, with no timeline for taking off or returning to the gate.

At that point, Mr. Hernandez left the cockpit, walked through the plane and down its rear aft stairs. He approached the mechanics who were working at a hangar next door and asked if there was a good pizza place nearby. He called in an order for 12 pizzas and went to an A.T.M. to get money, and the mechanics drove off to pick up the order, which the flight crew cut up and served to passengers along with refreshments and snacks. Some passengers, thinking this was just a normal part of service during delays, asked for pepperoni instead of cheese.

Stuck with a delay that was no one’s fault, Mr. Hernandez didn’t think of his passengers as security risks or fares. He thought of them as human beings. T.W.A. gave him accolades for his actions.

You can’t do that now. Indeed, in the post 9/11 environment, many parts of this story would be impossible. Pilots don’t leave the cockpit, much less the airplane. And you certainly can’t place an order at an off-airport pizza place and get it delivered to a plane waiting on the tarmac.

Ultimately, the reason Mr. Hernandez’s story sounds so bizarre is that the 9/11 attacks were a catalyst for an enduring change in the flying experience. From that point onward, the relationship between a flight crew and passengers, airport and airline economics, as well as the role of security, began to shift in a series of predictable and unpredictable ways.

Sara Nelson is the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union. As a flight attendant for United Airlines on 9/11, she first learned of the attacks when she was exercising in a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. She was based in Boston, and had previously worked on United Flight 175, the Boston to Los Angeles flight that hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. After the attacks, she and two other Boston-based colleagues rented a car to return home. She remembers thinking, “I just gotta get there and be with everyone.” Driving straight through, she said, they saw “people had put American flags up on every single overpass all the way from Chicago to Boston.”

On 9/11, Ken Diaz, a flight attendant and AFA-CWA president at United Airlines, had been in the Newark Airport ready room alongside flight attendants from Flight 93, which later crashed in Pennsylvania after a hijacking attempt. Separately, his cousin was killed in the World Trade Towers collapse. He vividly remembers the first flight he worked after 9/11. “Everyone had a nervous look to them,” he recalled. “We were trying to instill confidence in them, meanwhile covering our own despair that we were going through.”

I also remember the first trip I took after the attacks, into Reagan National Airport in Washington. It was in the evening, already dark, and the grim voice of the pilot announced over the loud speaker that no one was allowed to stand up or leave their seats for the last 30 minutes of the flight. Not even for the bathroom. No exception, he said repeatedly.

It was a moment frozen in time, no one making eye contact, suspicious of each other, an absolute stillness, heads all bowed as if witnessing a body being lowered into the grave. Looking out the window at the lights of the city at night felt like a transgression.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, North American airspace was closed to civilian traffic for two days, but flights slowly resumed after. However, there was no returning to the pre-9/11 flying experience.

“September 11th affects our jobs every single day,” Ms. Nelson said. New flight attendants may be too young to have any memory of the attacks, she added, “but their training all relates back to September 11th.”

Flight crews are trained to assess passengers as potential security risks while they board. In the air, flight attendants make mental notes of what they could use as potential weapons if needed. And if a medical emergency arises, their training addresses the potential that it is not a real health emergency but a diversion. The airplane is a different place compared with the time Mr. Hernandez ordered pizzas for his stranded passengers.

Compounding this changed cabin environment were the financial hardships of the airline companies after 9/11. Despite federal assistance, the years following 2001 were filled with airline bankruptcies, mergers and losses in the tens of billions of dollars. Airlines cut the number of attendants on flights to the minimum required. Flights that once operated with five attendants now have four, Mr. Diaz said. These staffing cuts were instituted as an immediate reaction to 9/11’s shock to the industry, but 20 years later, they’re still around and they have the feel of permanence. In addition, Mr. Diaz said, “We’re dealing with passenger loads that we have never seen prior to 9/11. The planes are packed.” Packed is the right term to use. Airline seats are narrower than ever, and average legroom has shrunk several inches.

Before 9/11, it wasn’t unusual for an economy-class ticket on a New York to Los Angeles flight to include the ability to choose your own seat; free checked and carry-on bags; meals, drinks and snacks; pillows and even a blanket. Like staffing cuts, the withdrawal of some of these amenities and the transition of others to fee-based often was explained as a response to a crisis. Checked baggage fees began in 2008 supposedly as a response to a recession and the high cost of jet fuel. We are no longer in a recession and the cost of jet fuel is much lower, but baggage fees are still around.

Like other post 9/11 changes, these fees have wider consequences than just being another source of revenue to airlines. They encourage people to bring more bags onto the airplane, which slows down the boarding and deplaning process and crowds an already crowded airplane. It also increases the chance of conflict. Search online for “carry-on bag fights” and you get the idea.

But it’s not just the in-the-air experience that changed. Flying in the United States today is stressful from the moment you leave your home for the airport.

“There’s a level of anxiety and it’s got to do with unpleasantness and unpredictability,” said Moshe Safdie, the prominent Israeli-Canadian-American architect who has built airports around the world, in places like Singapore, Toronto and Tel Aviv. Take the process required to get through security. Wait times can vary greatly, which people deal with by leaving many hours before their flight and spending more time at the airport. And if it was pleasant, OK. But it’s not pleasant,” Mr. Safdie said. “It’s anxiety all the way. And those tensions go through. They go through the connections to the hubs. And until you get out of the other side, you’re just under stress.”

Before 9/11, boarding a plane required nothing more than walking through a metal detector. Now the experience can include taking off your shoes and your belt, placing electronics into separate bins and travel-size liquids into see-through plastic bags. Full body scanners and other advanced screening tools, such as facial recognition and computed tomography scanners, are in operation alongside pat-downs, armed pilots and air marshals. Some security changes were implemented immediately after the attacks; others have been added in the ensuing years.

Beyond the security experience, Mr. Safdie outlined other differences between American airports and the rest of the world. U.S. airports feel like “they’re starved of resources,” he said, while in other places, particularly in Asia, “the ambitions are different, the resources invested are different, the national pride associated with them is different.” These airports have a “generosity of space” — enough room to help transiting passengers feel at ease.

In addition to the infrastructure challenges of American airports are problems inherent in the dominant hub-and-spoke model, where passengers coming from smaller airports connect to their final destination via hubs like Atlanta, Chicago or Denver. Bad weather then ripples throughout the system, causing hundreds or thousands of delayed or canceled flights. Although this model sprung up after airline deregulation in 1978, it has thrived in the years since 9/11, Mr. Safdie said.

“The worst thing is to be in an American airport when bad weather starts delaying flights,” he said. Nearly a quarter of flights in the U.S. were delayed this summer.

There are ways to avoid the worst of the flying system, like enrolling in TSA PreCheck, a trusted traveler program from the Transportation Security Administration that speeds up the security process at the airport. The PreCheck website sums up its value: Trusted travelers “experience a smoother screening process — no need to remove shoes, belts, 3-1-1 liquids, laptops or light jackets.” As of March 2020, PreCheck had 10 million members. Other programs include Sentri (for the U.S.-Mexico border), Global Entry (for international passengers), NEXUS (for the U.S.-Canada border) and Clear (a nongovernment option). For those who combine their trusted traveler status with membership to airport lounges, and business or first class seats, the flying experience can be altogether different. At times even pleasant.

Membership has its privileges, as the saying goes, but it also requires money and a willingness to have governments dig into your private life. For the fortunate, the flying experience sometimes can approach the way it used it be. For most, however, it is a slog, something to endure. Some travelers have it even worse because of their religious beliefs or the color of their skin. Security and customs screenings or flight attendant scrutiny can lead to the stress of “traveling while Muslim” or “flying while brown” — profiling based on skin color or religious affiliation.

It can be hard to remember, but at one point, flying was considered part of a vacation, not just the means to get to it. Emily Thomas, a professor of philosophy at Durham University in England and the author of “The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad,” remembered as a child in the late 1980s being into the cockpit of planes while they were in flight. “It felt quite magical; this dark cabin filled with lights,” she said, recalling a “visceral thrill of standing in a cockpit and seeing clouds below you and thinking, my God, there’s a person here who is ensuring that this metal can doesn’t drop through the clouds.” That’s impossible today.

The more people in the travel industry you speak to about the flying experience pre- and post-9/11, the more you perceive the strands leading to the Gordian knot of air travel today: Airline deregulation, inadequate infrastructure, post-9/11 security reinforcement and economic pressures.

The once common idea of leaving the airport during a multi-hour layover to tour a city seems foolhardy, given the uncertainty and anxiety of having to go through the gantlet again. Or take the pre-9/11 practice of meeting friends and loved ones at the gate as they deplaned. A T.S.A. official gave convincing reasons it was unlikely to return. Because of high passenger loads, T.S.A. personnel have enough on their plates just to process ticketed passengers through security. Adding families or friends who are not traveling into the security process would unnecessarily strain an already taxed system.

This makes total sense, but it also removes another opportunity for human connection and kindness in a system starved for it. Remember how nice it was to see children and grandchildren and people of all ages peering into the jet bridge for the first glimpse of their loved one? (Those in their 20s or younger may meet this question with a blank stare.) It made the boarding areas in airports places of joy.

Today’s flying environment 20 years after the terrorist attacks can be boiled down to one overriding motivation: just get through it. Bury your head in your phone, wipe down your arm rests and tray table, insulate yourself from everyone around you, don’t make eye contact. In this setting, there is no sweeter relief than the plane door closing and realizing that the seat next to you is empty. No wonder flight crews describe planes that are full of people yet deathly silent, the window shades all down.

Add the pandemic disruptions to the mix — cuts in flight capacity and staff furloughs — and recent incidents of fights and struggles on planes seem less an aberration than the inevitable consequence of a flying environment decades in the making. Flight crews are not only being asked to gauge whether boarding passengers are potential terrorists, but also to police mask usage. And because masks have become so political and regulations surrounding them can change frequently, pilots and flight attendants find themselves at a flash point. The spellbinding unity displayed after 9/11 — flags on highway overpasses, from Chicago to Boston — can seem like a distant memory.

There is no sword that cuts this Gordian knot. There are, however, ways to do better, starting with progress on minimum standards for the configuration of airplane seats, security and flight crew staffing appropriate for the increased numbers of passengers and rehabilitation of airport infrastructure with an emphasis on well-being in addition to security and commerce.

Singapore’s airport, Changi, is a more or less permanent fixture on lists of the world’s best airports. Mr. Safdie knows the airport well, since he was the lead architect for a recent addition to it, called the Jewel Changi. This addition includes entertainment, retail and nature-focused indoor space, such as the world’s largest indoor waterfall and a five-story garden.

Jewel Changi is an easy visit for anyone transiting through the airport, since, unlike in the United States, security takes place at the gate. This minimizes the unpredictability of security lines as well as the pressure on security personnel. It demands more flexibility from security systems, as well as more personnel, and likely costs more money. But even more impressive than flexible security is the fact that Changi airport and Jewel Changi are tourist attractions. Think about it — people, who are not flying through the airport, visit it.

Perhaps it’s a pipe dream to imagine a Changi-style airport in the United States, or a flying experience that is not anxiety-ridden from the moment you leave your house. After the horrors of 9/11, traveling by plane in the United States delivers on its core mandate: It gets you from one place to another safely. Government agencies like T.S.A. and the Federal Aviation Administration, together with airline companies and airports, comprise a system that delivers the basics. But it’s hard to call it humane.

Despite its shortcomings, flying remains the best way to maintain far-flung human connections and to discover communities not our own. So we dip into the flying ecosystem as lightly and quickly as possible, doing what we can to avoid long exposure. When we’re in, we download movies and books, we keep our heads down, we endure.

In his book “Wind, Sand and Stars,” the French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth. We are able to judge man in cosmic terms, scrutinize him through our portholes as through instruments of the laboratory.” He’s referring to the ability to go in a straight line, as the crow flies, and peer down on the world.

What would he think today, if he were scrutinizing us in the other direction, peering through the porthole into an airplane filled with the anxious and stressed?

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