Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Frequent Flyers and Fear Itself
September 1, 2016 -- After chaotic and mindless evacuations at Los Angeles International and New York's John F. Kennedy Airport in the last few weeks, I planned to opine that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was wrong. I was about to suggest that flyers had more to fear than fear itself.
Then I listened to the key sentence of FDR's first inauguration address and realized that he was right. Eighty-three years ago, in the midst of what could only be called the worst of American economic times, Roosevelt accurately defined the bizarre mania that afflicts travelers now.
Everyone knows FDR said in 1933 that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But then, in a much less quoted section, he explained the term. Fear itself, he said, was "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror."
What else but "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" explains last Sunday's evacuation of five LAX terminals because some travelers mistook loud noises for gunshots? This after airport police arrested a man dressed in a Zorro suit and brandishing a plastic sword.
What else but "fear itself" explains a bizarrely similar incident two weeks earlier at JFK? Two terminals and adjacent roadways were hurriedly emptied because some people claimed shots were fired. As best as anyone can tell, the noise was actually travelers in an airport bar cheering and clapping as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt won the 100-meter dash at the Rio Olympics.
Two years ago in this space I suggested that the terrorists had won because they'd forced us to change the life we live. Some of you pushed back, claiming I was being unnecessarily dramatic, unduly defeatist.
How are you feeling now that two of the nation's busiest airports were turned upside down by loud noises? You think travelers stuck on aircraft during the the LAX and JFK evacuations believe we're winning the war on terror? Got any sage words of wisdom for the tens of thousands of travelers unceremoniously rousted from the LAX and JFK terminals after misguided reports of mischief?
We have brought this unreasoning insanity on ourselves. We see — and hear — the boogie man everywhere. Rather than striding confidently and fearlessly through our lives on the road, we cower in corners expecting the worst. A buffoonish Zorro incites panic. Clapping from a bar instills mortal fear.
It's "see something, say something" run amok. We see something scary everywhere. And we say everything is a risk to life and limb. It's ridiculous. It's annoying. And, worst of all, it does the terrorists' job for them.
They don't even need to do anything anymore. They've got us so spooked that we flinch at the first loud noise and run from the commonplace.
But travelers who have become carriers of "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" aren't just blanching at random applause. They're booking away from anywhere that seems dangerous.
Take Turkey, for example. A terrorist attack at Istanbul Airport in June and a failed military coup is playing havoc with the country's tourism industry. Arrivals dipped by more than a third in July. A Turkish hotel association says occupancy rates in Istanbul fell to about 36 percent in July, a 40 percent decline from last year. And all of this is after a 41 percent drop in tourist arrivals in June compared to the same month in 2015. The plunge is so severe that Istanbul-based Turkish Airlines, which had been growing feverishly over the last decade, is slashing capacity for the fall season.
Brussels, too, is reeling after attacks there in March. Visitor attractions throughout Belgium have suffered this summer. Hotel rates in Brussels, capital of the European Union, have plummeted.
Fear itself has even hammered France, literally the most popular tourist spot on earth. Things are so bad that The Wall Street Journal recently published a list of popular, but cancelled, public events around the country. The panic created by a year of ISIS attacks has cost the Paris tourism industry an estimated 750 million euros. Parisian hotel rates, usually among the highest in the world, have slumped dramatically.
Desperate for passengers, La Compagnie, the French all-business-class carrier, has slashed fall ticket prices to $1,400 roundtrip. At Air France, coach seats between New York and Paris, one of the five busiest transatlantic routes, have tumbled below $700 roundtrip.
Surely, we can do better than live our lives on the road in the grips of fear itself. Yes, there is danger in the world. Yes, terrorists target travelers and hit airports. Yes, travel entails a modicum of risk.
I am not a cockeyed optimist. I'm not a shill for the travel industry. In fact, most Seat 2B columns rail against the indignities the travel industry throws at us. And I have a healthy awareness of real terror and how it can — and does — harm us.
Yet I cannot imagine living in the shadow of "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." I won't give in to fear itself. I don't want to do the terrorists' job for them. I cannot accept a life of quiet desperation, of hiding in my basement and then meeting my maker after falling in my bathtub.
I choose to travel. For business, because I must. For leisure, because I enjoy meeting new people and understanding the lives they lead.
When I walk into an airport terminal after Labor Day, I will assume a loud noise is someone chapping for a winner dropped down the line at the U.S. Open Tennis championship or some baseball fans cheering a game-winning hit laced down the line during the pennant race.
What will you do when you hear the next loud noise?