New World Flight

Flying in the new world highlights the best and worst qualities of our air traffic system, and perhaps the people who use it as well.

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by Dave Demerjian


I knew I was in for a long day the minute that my friend Ami dropped me off at Boston’s Logan Airport on Saturday, Sept. 22. My flight was scheduled to leave at 1:45 pm, and Ami had convinced me I needed at least three hours to get checked in. I told her I thought she was being ridiculous and buying into post-terrorism hysteria.

In the weeks following the attacks, I explained to her, President Bush had asked us to "get back to business" and "live our lives as normally as possible." In my world, that meant showing up at the airport around 15 minutes before my flight left, and praying some irate gate agent wouldn’t force me to check my bag. Ami wasn't buying it though, and picked me up from my house at 9:30am. On the way over, she asked me if I was afraid to fly, and I told her that I wasn't. She didn’t believe me though, and said that something seemed to be bothering me. I told her that she was being ridiculous and looked out the window at the dark walls of the Callahan Tunnel.

Something was bothering me though. As much as I loved to bitch about our crazy air traffic system, I didn’t want it to change. I loved that I could get to the airport 20 minutes before my flight and usually make it onto the plane. If I missed that plane, there was usually another one an hour later. I delighted in sneaking three bags on board with me, covertly using my cell phone until we were practically in the air, and on occasion, smoking a cigarette in the lavatory by exhaling into the drain of the sink. A colleague of mine used to brag about leaving his rental car at the curb with the engine running, catching his flight, and then calling Avis from the plane. My European friends who experienced American airports were either horrified or delighted by the fact that boarding an aircraft in America was easier than getting on a train in Europe. It was easy to fly in America.

Clearly, much too easy. In our bright, shiny, pre-September 11th world, it had never occurred to me to be afraid of a hijacking. Hijackings happened in unstable Middle Eastern countries, not in our land of plenty. In America, you missed your connection, you lost your luggage, perhaps sat on the runway for an hour. But you did it with a stack of magazines in your bag and a Cinnabon just past gate B12 to comfort you. Airports and airlines represented affluence, success, and clean fast movement. A sleek, sexy jump over the hurdle of distance.

I knew that for safety sake, things had to change, and change dramatically at that. But that didn’t mean it didn’t make me a little sad. Dashing through the terminal with only a minute to spare, literally just making it onto the plane before the doors were closed. The speed and the spontaneity were uniquely American. As we hurtled out of the tunnel and onto the airport access road, I had no idea what to expect at the terminal.

I got to Logan, bid Ami farewell, and headed into the recently remodeled US Airways concourse at Terminal B. What I saw there almost made me run back to the curb, hoping Ami had not yet pulled away. A mass of people, thousands upon thousands it seemed, jammed into the building, pressing helplessly against each other toward the ticket counter. It took me several minutes to realize that this mess was a line, one that wound around itself three, four, maybe even five times. National Guardsmen with semi-automatic weapons stood by lazily, looking disinterested but imposing in their green uniforms. A US Airways agent named Sarah was trying with difficulty to organize crowds of people into lines based loosely on flight departure time. There was disagreement over where the line actually began. A second US Airways agent with a fake British accent was barking out orders over the intercom, but no one could hear him over the din of confused passengers. I stepped into place at the end of the line, only to be told by a large woman in a denim jumper that I was cutting, and that it really wasn’t fair to cut in the midst of a national emergency. I went to the other end of the terminal, thinking that perhaps the end of the line was down there somewhere. No dice. I asked Debbie, yet another US Airways customer service representative, if she could direct me to the end of the line. She didn’t answer me, but her expression told me that she really had no idea. At this point I was really ready to call Ami to come pick me up. If things were this bad in Boston, what the hell would happen when I got to Philadelphia, where I was picking up my connecting flight to Paris?

Two hours later, I stood gridlocked behind a group of semi-elderly foliage cruise refugees from Muscle Shoals Alabama, assessing the crowd. If Osama and his team were truly on a mission to "destroy the American Way Of Life" this line sadly looked like a good place for the destruction to begin. I watched as a woman fortified her helmet like hair with Aqua Net aerosol, temporarily blinding the man behind her. I laughed while watching a member of the Muscle Shoals posse, not a day over 85, take quick sips out of a flask then return it to her coat. The couple behind me argued the merits of staying in the "godforsaken line" versus renting a car and driving seven hours to Rochester.

I continued looking around, and I began to feel better. People were chuckling, arguing, kissing (the couple making out against the luggage sizer was making me ill), eating bad fast food, telling stories, scolding children, talking on cell phones. In short, all the things that Americans do. It gave me comfort to see that with the exception of long lines and an abundance of God Bless America casual-wear, things hadn’t really changed that much. "We’re not going to let terrorism make us afraid to live," I thought to myself. "We will fly, we will travel. We will not become a mean, frightened society." It felt good to think these thoughts, and to have faith in people. Which made it all the sadder when a few moments later I watched a nice middle age couple pick up their Mochaccino’s and practically sprint out of Starbucks after seeing an Arab-looking man stroll toward the counter. Or when I heard the man with the America Rocks T-shirt tell his wife "I can’t tell any of them apart anyway, we should send all them all back, just to be safe." I looked across the concourse and watched three uniformed officers literally turn a woman’s open suitcase upside down on the terminal floor. She burst into tears. She didn’t look dangerous. But then again, she didn’t look "American" either. And maybe that was the point.

Stuck in line and bored out of my skull, I sulkily glanced at the departures/arrivals board in front of me. Four out of five Philadelphia flights cancelled. Three of the four Charlotte departures cancelled. All three of the Baltimore, Washington National, and LaGuardia flights cancelled. US Airways, was, for sure, a shadow of its pre-September 11th self.

Of course, most airlines were in trouble even before the terrorist attacks. The big drop in business travel over the last eight months had guaranteed the majors their worst year since the Gulf War. US Airways would have been in deep shit no matter what. New competition on their bread and butter East Coast routes was killing them, they flew empty planes across the Atlantic, and they had announced a major Caribbean expansion just as the US economy slid into recession and laid-off dot-com-mers began rethinking their expensive vacations. But now of course, the entire industry was in a terrible mess. VP’s of corporate communications at all the airlines worked long hours churning out press releases to remind us. Industry layoffs approaching 120,000. Routes suspended or discontinued, airplanes retired to the desert. Major hubs dismantled or downsized. Ah yes, the hub and spoke system. Where one airline lands 50 flights at an airport all at once, transfers passengers and (sometimes) luggage onto connecting flights, then 45 minutes sends all fifty flights back into the sky. A recipe for congestion and misery perhaps, but also the only reason I could choose from eight daily nonstops to cities as irrelevant as Charlotte, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, or Memphis. We all loved to complain about lost luggage, missed connections, and congested terminals, but none of us complained about hourly flights to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Atlanta or the thousands upon thousands of other flights that they connected to. The ability to get anywhere, at almost anytime, was something that the flying public took for granted before September 11th. I looked at the departure board again, watched as "CANCELLED" blinked angry red next to flight after flight. How many of those flights were going to be cancelled forever? How many airlines, I wondered, were about to be cancelled?

Three hours and 20 minutes after I had arrived at Logan, I stepped up to the ticket counter, where "Sue H." was ready to help. She, like so many other US Air employees I had seen that day, looked like she was about to burst into tears. I told her that she was doing a great job, and that I was sorry about things being so crappy right now. She upgraded me to business class. "Say nice things more often," I thought to myself as I tucked my ticket into my passport. Another line at the metal detector, and I finally crossed into the departure hall. In spite of all the chaos at ticketing, or maybe because of it, the gate areas were almost deserted, and eerily quiet. My shoes clicked loudly on the floor as I crossed through the concession area to the sparkling new US Airways pier.

As I waited in the gate area I noticed that although my flight was the only Philadelphia departure that afternoon, it was practically empty. Once on board, I waited nervously for dramatic intercom proclamations from the crew, urging me to hurl bulky objects at any potential hijackers, to make my country proud by assaulting anyone who attempted to take this plane. Instead, I was treated to the standard in-flight safety briefing, and some honey roasted cashews.

Somehow, being in the air felt better than being on the ground. Up here at least, you could pretend that things were normal for a couple of minutes, without CNN reminding you how not normal they really were. By the time I got on my connecting flight in Philadelphia, a sense of optimism had begun to wash over me (two glasses of champagne helped this along). Sitting in my beautiful leather seat in the nearly deserted business class cabin, I suddenly understood with almost complete confidence that things would return to normal again soon. People loved to fly, and they weren’t going to let the terrorists win. As my flight attendant spooned lobster and steak onto the china plate in front of me I watched the sun sink below the horizon. We hurtled over the Atlantic toward Europe, and as I sipped on champagne, I was for a couple of minutes able to forget the horrors of September 11th.

I unrolled my linen napkin and got ready to eat. I waved the flight attendant down and asked her to bring me silverware; someone had forgotten to include a set on my tray. It wasn’t until she returned to my seat that I realized how wrong my thinking had been. As I struggled to cut through my steak with a dull plastic knife, I realized that things would never be the same again, and that in that way, maybe we were fighting a war that we had already lost.

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