10 THOUGHTS ON TRAVEL AFTER 9/11
By Joe Brancatelli
September 7, 2011 -- I woke up in a San Francisco hotel on September 11, 2001, and the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were already over. Brave passengers had already sacrificed their lives to stop a fourth plane from hitting another target. The commercial air-travel system had already been shut down.
So I did the only thing I could think of doing: I went to my laptop and bashed out a column that set out my desire to fly again because that was exactly what the terrorists didn't want me to do.
A decade later, in the midst of media's obsessive desire to make us "reflect" on that awful day, I wonder how I could have been so naive. I wonder why so many people responded so positively to what I wrote, why the column was reprinted so many times in so many places. And I don't know a single business traveler who wouldn't give anything and everything they own if it were only September 10, 2001 again.
No one will remember this column or reprint it. It will not inspire confidence or defiance. Because when you have 10 thoughts about travel since 9/11, none of them are happy and none are particularly hopeful. The world in general, and the world of travel in particular, hasn't fared well since 9/11.
1. We're Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Airport security before 9/11 was silly, annoying, and not particularly effective. But at least there was the presumption of innocence. The rent-a-cop security screeners were mostly looking for contraband. But no matter the stated policy of the Transportation Security Administration, the agency's approach to security is self-evident: We're guilty until the screeners prove us innocent. It has made airport security infuriating, dangerous, and not particularly effective. Since travel security is, essentially, a retroactive judgment, the TSA can claim to be a "success" because no aircraft have been attacked on or above U.S. soil. But the TSA will instantly be judged a "failure" when a plane is eventually attacked. Either way, the 99.44 percent of us who want nothing more than to fly from here to there in peace will have been treated like criminals.
2. The TSA Proves Government Isn't Working
I believe now what I believed on 9/11: As a nation, we had to federalize airport and aircraft security. Keeping flyers safe was and is a matter of national security. But the TSA is a textbook example of what Americans hate about modern government: It is hopelessly bureaucratic and abusively unaware of its own failings. Worse, it seems to be revel in violating the clearly stated boundaries of its mandate. The 2001 legislation that federalizes security and created the TSA also specifically envisioned private, third-party players offering a "trusted traveler" program for low-risk frequent travelers. The TSA not only smothered the early private players that tried to offer those plans, it has now embarked on its own government-run trusted-traveler scheme. The TSA's enabling legislation also specifically created an opt-out mechanism for airports that wanted to run their own security system. Without prior notice or justification, TSA Administrator John Pistole shut down that option too.
3. September 11 Changed Everything
It's a cliché, of course, but 9/11 and the mentality it spawned really did change everything. And none of it for the better. We have to squish our toiletries into little bags and tiny bottles. We have to rethink how we dress at the airport. We have to flash photo ID at hotel check-in because our credit card and frequent-guest card aren't enough. Scissors, corkscrews, paper and box cutters and all sorts of useful traveling tools are suddenly weapons of opportunity. A loved one with a friendly face can't meet you at the gate anymore. I recently read a blog post by a man who complained he wasn't allowed back on the plane after disembarkation to retrieve a Kindle he left in the seat pocket. Getting back on a plane to retrieve a forgotten item wasn't always a security threat. You can't find lockers or mailboxes at airports anymore. The list is so long that we've actually forgotten all of the inconsequential niceties we've lost since 9/11.
4. The Bad Memes of 9/11
The 9/11 "truthers" and conspiracy theorists don't bother me much. They're too crazy to worry about. But I despise the bad memes that 9/11 has spawned. Like the one about how former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is a security expert. He's the politician who built the city's emergency operations center under the World Trade Center—even though it had already been bombed in a 1993 terrorist attack. Or how about: "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims"? Wanna tell that to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing? The friends and families of the Unabomber's targets? Try that line in Norway now that some Christian crusader type bombed central Oslo just so he could get to an island camp and kill dozens of young people.
5. The "Israeli System" Fallacy
I admire the efficiency and effectiveness of the methods that Israel uses to keep passengers safe. But not only isn't the Israeli system foolproof, it is not scalable or transferable here. Anyone who looks at the Israeli system carefully knows this. Israel spends about eight times more per passenger on security than we do. And we'd need about 3 million security workers to duplicate its effort. But if you still think Israeli-style security will work in the United States, I'll pay for your plane ticket to Washington so you can ask Congress to octuple the TSA's $8 billion annual budget and hire more than 2 million additional employees.
6. The End of the Legacy Lines
Alfred Kahn, the putative father of the 1978 deregulation of airlines, once told me that he was stunned the so-called full-service "legacy" carriers had survived into the 21st century. Several may now have outlived Kahn, who died last year, but they are surely headed to the graveyard. They are merging to oblivion, and just four remain (Delta, American, US Airways, and United). They've surrendered small-market flying to franchised commuter carriers and are forming virtual mergers with international airlines to scale back overseas operations. Their losses since 9/11? Depending on how you run the numbers, $50 billion or maybe even $100 billion. The only airlines to grow profitably since 9/11? One-class Southwest, which transports more passengers than any U.S. carrier. And one-class JetBlue Airways. It flew about one-hundredth of one percent of U.S. traffic before 9/11 and it is about 4 percent of the market now.
7. The Terrorists Are Idiots
The Atlantic magazine called terrorists "nitwits" last year, but I've been saying for years that the bad guys aren't as smart and savvy as we think. We've hardened our airline system substantially since 9/11, and it is one of the few relatively secure parts of our mostly still-open society. Terrorists can still hijack or destroy an aircraft, but the opportunity costs are daunting. If the bad guys really understood the American psyche and wanted to deliver devastating and disheartening blows, they'd focus on relatively unguarded targets in the U.S. heartland. Shopping malls, theme parks, post offices, and office parks are all unprepared. Even small attacks in places like Iowa or Texas would frighten the daylights out of this country. Let's give thanks that the terrorist don't get it and continue to mindlessly pursue a relatively secure airline system.
8. The Terrorists May Be Winning Anyway
For all their idiocies, though, the terrorists may be winning the war on the American way of life. Our post-9/11 economy has been largely stagnant, we're mired in debt, the political system is gridlocked, the middle class is disappearing, our manufacturing base has shriveled, religious intolerance is on the rise, and we've frittered away trillions on unending and apparently unwinnable wars. You do your own calculations about how much of our freedom has been sacrificed. When I wrote "We Will Fly Again," I stated what was self-evident: Terrorism's ultimate goal is "to change the pattern and the fabric of our daily lives." Sadly, few can seriously argue that the pattern and fabric of daily American life is better today than it was a decade ago.
9. I Should Have Been There
Forgive me for being ridiculously personal, but I've been haunted for a decade by one terrible thought. Had I been home on 9/11, I might have made a difference. I live 55 miles directly up the Hudson River from Ground Zero. A friend who was on my riverfront property about 20 minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower told me later that he saw a jet flying below the mountain line right over the river. He knew that was bizarre, but didn't know what it meant. But I would have known something was wrong. I have no doubt that the aircraft he saw was American Flight 11 dead reckoning down river. If I'd seen that Boeing 767 flying so inexplicably low, I would have called the New York TRACON and alerted them. It might have helped somehow. But I wasn't there.
10. It Will Happen Again
There's no way to sugarcoat it: Somehow, someway, someday, someone will hijack a plane or blow it up. Innocent people will die. Just because we have a "zero tolerance" policy doesn't mean we can have a "zero incident" guarantee. It will happen again. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2011 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.