Flying ASE: A Dozen Trips After 9/11

September 11, 2001

On Tuesday morning, September 11, as I lay in bed psyching myself up for a Friday trip to Bremen Germany, Pauline rushed into the bedroom and told me I had better turn on the TV. As I watched the second plane smash into the World Trade Center, an unsettling dread swept over me. It took the rest of the day for me to realize that I would not be going to Bremen even if I wanted to. The US airline industry was completely shut down for almost a week. During the following six months I flew 15 times. I experienced about 30 different airports. This is an account of six months of Flying ASE.

The terrorists accomplished many things, not the least of which was to screw up the air travel experience, possibly, forever. It's not like it was all that good before, but now there is a temporal dividing line I shall refer to as BSE and ASE. One could always pay between $99 and $3000 for a tourist class seat to Washington DC. The $99 seat could be found usually by searching an airport serviced by Southwest. Southwest has a multifaceted mission, low fairs, good basic service and setting records for the amount of lines one has to stand in before boarding a plane. BSE, most of one's time was spent getting to and from the airport. For four months ASE it was mostly spent getting from the front of the airport to the back. After six months things are smoother, but still somewhat unpredictable. There was a line to check the car trunk before parking, a line to check baggage or get a ticket. Some of us who had nothing to check proceeded directly to the line to get through the first security check. After this came the metal detectors. Regretfully, I had to leave behind my handy dandy Swiss Army knife that I have carried everywhere for the past 50 years. I really feel inadequate without it.

At Southwest, one waits in a line for a boarding pass, then after that, especially if you get a boarding number larger than 60 you need to wait in line again with the idea of nudging past some little old lady who drew a 61. I counted seven lines one stands in before boarding the plane. Hopefully, terrorists will not be that patient and will take their action where there are fewer lines.

Sitting on the plane I began to wonder what I would do if a terrorist did take over the plane. One columnist glibly stated that new security policies provide the terrorist a guarantee that he is the only one on the plane who is armed. At this point passengers have absolutely no way to defend themselves against the simplest knife or razor blade, which would really be quite simple to sneak on board. Finally, I figured the best thing I had on me was a Pilot pin. I believe I could stick in right in some guy’s neck (or maybe his eye), providing a little negative reinforcement to his desire to crash the plane.

Southwest seems to be the only airline to have thrived ASE, even though air travel is said to be down by 25%. There are a number of explanations for this. Most travelers are not afraid a terrorist is going to crash the plane, so this is not the reason. There is no way passengers would allow what happened on September 11. We all have an unspoken agreement that any peckerhead standing up with a smuggled-on knife and threatening to take over a plane is dead meat. Travelers just don't want to stand in lines all day wondering if the plane will take off, even if they make it on time.

We all seem to know that the only real way to prevent a terrorist from smuggling on weapons would be to strip everyone down and x-ray them. The only reason people were surprised with the Chinese guy who got through security with five weapons was that we did not know that anyone was that dumb. I thought it was illegal to be that dumb. But then more recently some dumb ass tried to get on the plane at LAX with a play hand grenade. Although most people would have trouble hiding anything lethal in a body cavity, I have sat beside a few who would have no trouble at all hiding a bazooka, maybe even a howitzer in a body cavity.

Many travelers, especially the ones nervous about terrorists have flocked to Southwest Airlines. I have been on eight Southwest Airlines flights since 11 September, all of them filled to the brim. It's pretty simple. People figure that terrorists are not likely to be on Southwest Airlines. Why? They have no first class. They don't even serve meals. A bloke who is just about to kill himself on someone else’s nickel would not do it in tourist class seats, and he would not eat peanuts as his last meal. Moreover, Southwest commonly flies out of small airports from little towns the terrorist never heard of and couldn't find even if he wanted to. I almost got lost going to Ontario Airport this morning even knowing where it is. I bought some SWA stock based on this observation. ASE few of the airlines served meals for a few months. Actually none of the domestic airlines have served meals worth eating since about 1970, anyway.

On the other hand, you probably will not find a sky marshal on Southwest either. Southwest also knows how to make people feel comfortable. The flight attendant just announced that we were setting out on a long, long, five-hour flight to Phoenix. She added "This flight is so long that your children will be in college by the time you get to Phoenix." As we taxied down the runway, a steam engine "choo choo" train complete with whistles sounded over the intercom. "Next stop "Phoenix", she shouted. Everyone laughed out loud. Anyone who did not laugh out loud would be branded as a terrorist and immediately be stabbed with a hundred Pilot pens.

One of the greatest costs of September 11 to America will be the huge bureaucracy set up in the name of fighting/preventing terrorism. It is not easy to guess what they will strike next. It does not take a genius to figure out that they will not strike a lot of things now being made more secure to prevent them from being struck. Airports have changed everywhere ASE and in vastly different ways. Traveling depends a lot more on luck nowadays. Arriving in Baltimore, I immediately got lost trying to get out of the parking garage with a rental car. The roads have been rerouted. When returning the car I found myself being routed by make shift signs to a rental car return far from the terminal. The FAA ruling is that no parking garages can face the main terminal, and that is where the rental cars used to be. The logic of this is not clear. Bureaucrats at work, I assume.

Airports have always been under construction, mainly getting larger. Now they are all under construction to make terrorism difficult.

I arrived two and a half hours early not knowing what to anticipate. I first approached the C gate, not knowing which gate was mine. The line was unbelievable, extending the entire length of the airport with no end in sight. My first thought was that I should have come earlier, since two hours is not enough. To my pleasant surprise, my Concourse B had a short five-minute line. I had over two hours at six AM in the morning, even before all of the stores had opened. A friend on this same flight a week ago warned me that three hours had not been enough for him. One passenger who had to check in baggage told me that had taken over an hour. The time needed is still unpredictable but as of March 31, 2002, things have improved considerably.

What many people haven't realized yet is that the 25% reduction is a blessing. Until this check in procedure gets speeded up they could not handle the full load. Flying has gone from the 60's, when the choice was Steak or Lobster, to now when one wonders if the airport has been shut down because some kid shook off his powdered Krispy Kreme on the bathroom sink (fear of Anthrax, bioterrorism).

Hotel bookings are off 25% and many hotel workers and airline employees are unemployed. It would be nice and naive to think that we can simply outlaw the weapons that hit us where we are most vulnerable. Until we accept that we all are soldiers in this war and must be prepared to die we will not have fully grasped the nature of a war on terrorism or the realization that we are really in such a war. There are several ways I can get killed today. I could whiff in a breath of Anthrax spores, a terrorist could crash this plane, or a drunk can come down the freeway in the wrong direction. Believe me, the last one is the one I worry about most.

Thanksgiving day, 2001

This was my second trip out of LAX ASE. The first trip to Jackson Mississippi had been marred by an airport closure that occurred just as I arrived at the parking garage in the nearby Crown Plaza Hotel. Someone had found a suspicious package. A comfortable 2 1//2 hour time margin began to erode. After waiting on a shuttle for half an hour we hired a taxi to get us into the airport. Our panic was eased by a relatively short half hour wait in line to get through security.

Two months later I could only hope things were at least no worse. We decided to not check bags on our way to Tennessee from LA. The night before I removed anything that is banned including my handy dandy Swiss Army knife that I feel naked without. As a last thought I stuck a large plastic ruler in my briefcase that I could use to wack a terrorist with. The freeway was practically empty on my 30-minute drive from Costa Mesa to LAX. We arrived at the LA airport 2 1/2 hours early, wondering if that was enough time. The problem now is unpredictability. The rule preventing curbside drop-off by private cars never affected me so far since I park off site anyway. The rule has now been dropped.

As the shuttle bus entered the airport my anxiety and sense of dread increased as we passed terminal one and saw endless lines of people still waiting to enter the front door. When I say endless, I mean it. The line extended almost to terminal two a quarter mile away. One could guess the time from the end of the line could easily be hours. This was repeated at terminals two and three. When we were dropped off at our Terminal four, I became annoyed because I could not locate the end of the line. Finally I asked an airline employ who pointed to the door. There was no line! Entering the door, I passed through the inspection gate so fast I was not even ready to be inspected. I even held up the line fumbling for my ticket and papers. This is what I mean by unpredictability. We spent the next two hours in the Admirals Club. Just before boarding the staff made the ominous announcement that a random search of passengers would now take place. I had joked before that this would be followed by the announcement of random names like "Mohammed Osama, Abudullah Medhat, and Bahamada Amrodahan. But the universe paid me back. My seat number was the first called. "Jesus! Do I look like a terrorist?" I thought as I remembered forgetting to comb my hair before leaving home. As she searched me I felt myself wishing she were doing something more useful. The flight left LA right on schedule. The plane is about half full.

I have had the special experience of being searched twice since. Maybe I should get a haircut.

Airports like LAX are at a great disadvantage compared smaller airports like Ontario and John Wayne. It only takes one suspicious happening to shut down the entire airport for hours. LAX has a lot more places for this to happen. This was born out by our arrival to a virtually abandoned Nashville airport. Never before have I moved through the airport so fast with no lines anywhere.

After spending an enjoyable Thanksgiving we returned again to the Nashville airport giving ourselves three hours to make up for the unpredictability of the times. I was astonished to find no one in line at the American Airlines counter on what should be one of the busiest travel days in the entire year. This made me very suspicious about the state of American Airlines, especially in view of a very long line at Southwest Airlines. The first confirmation of my suspicions is noting that the American Airlines Admirals Club had been closed. To further investigate my developing theory, I studied the monitors to find that American airlines had only five flights scheduled from Nashville for the entire day. Nashville has evolved from a once important hub of American Airlines to one that is practically unserviced. The monitor seemed dominated by Southwest Airlines. At this moment, I would suggest anyone having a huge holding in American Airlines stock reconsider his or her positions. How long will it take the public to forget that American has lost four large airplanes in just over two months.

I had attempted to incorporate a trip to Marshal Space Flight Center into the Thanksgiving trip, only to find out that the required ticket change would cost nearly $2000. Again, over and over, signs that American Airlines is in much more trouble than anyone cares to announce emerged. Attempting to avoid the uncertainty of LAX I scheduled this flight out of Orange Country Airport direct to Huntsville. At the Orange County John Wayne Airport I found a nearly abandoned American Airlines counter. The plane was about half full, but a rather large first class compartment was packed. This means that the seasoned travelers are back in full swing.

I was stunned at what I found in Dallas, a ghost town in the American Airlines terminal, a nearly empty Ambassadors club, and a nearly empty flight to Huntsville. I arrived late at an all-but-closed down Huntsville Airport.

Security at Marshal Space Flight Center was amazing. I began to feel the effects of the bureaucracy, which sometimes make little sense. Nothing is wrong with the security, since we don't know how to make sense of terrorism either. This may simply be an exercise in communication. How do you get a terrorist to disclose (against his will, of course) that he is, indeed, a terrorist? This can be thought of as a classic problem of active diagnostics. Expose him to some kind of signal and analyze his response. Hopefully it differs enough from a non-terrorist that an observant person can detect it. Hopefully, regular travelers will have little reaction while a terrorist will become nervous and either back out or give himself away.

At Marshal, I needed an escort to vouch for me (in person) even to pass through the gate. After that, my engine compartment, glove compartment, trunk, and bags were searched. This bought me a trip to a security building where I was issued a pass after further analysis. The front gate entrance was blocked by a zigzag obstacle course of concrete barriers. Strangely enough the exit was a straight through drive. I wondered what disincentive existed for driving in the exit.

A few months ago I could sail past this gate at 60 miles per hour. I learned later that employees were waiting in lines for over an hour to enter in the mornings. This type of security would have stopped none of the attacks on September 11. It is not clear why anyone expects an attack in places like this. They could do much more damage in down town Huntsville where security measures have not really changed. 

Leaving Huntsville got complicated as soon as American Airlines announced that my flight would be two hours late. I was not really shocked to discover that American Airlines did not have enough flights to get me to Orange County after on this trip. I settled for Long Beach, a long shot even then that assumed their delay was predictable. In the end it worked. Now I just had to figure out how to get home from Long Beach Airport, which is about 20 miles from my home. Once again I noted that the first class section was packed and I had to sit with the "tourists". 

A few months and a few flights later airports have returned to an almost tolerable state. I have not had a really bad experience now for a while. My last trip was to Cleveland to the NASA Glen Research Center. My Gold Card status rated me a first class upgrade all the way going and coming. Except for being searched the only other strange experience was boarding in Cleveland when the only two of us in First class were assigned seats next to each other. The flight attendant welcomed us to spread out. The experience was a little testier at the NASA Center. Unlike Marshal Space Flight Center, when I approached the guard gate, no one was in site. Why NASA puts the visitors center just inside the gate is beyond me. Why stop visitors and tell them they should proceed to the visitor’s center? I made the mistake of driving on through since the visitor’s center is just inside the gate. The guard, who apparently was bent over out of view in the guard shack rushed out, thinking he had caught a terrorist. I think I disappointed him when I told him that I only wanted to visit someone who was expecting me and had no desires to blow up anything. (Well, at least none that I was willing to discuss with him).


London August 2002-Causing a problem by attempting to solve it by solving a non problem

You must have heard of the man who was looking for his lost ring under a street lamp. When asked where he had last seen it, he pointed to a dark alley, and then explained that he had not looked there for it because it was too dark.

After 11 September air ports became extremely unpredictable. Even after the initial period of caos it became extremely difficult to guess how long one needed at an airport to be safe with time. What resulted over the next year were classic examples of causing an anticipated problem with a solution of the wrong problem. These phenomena are always easier to see in retrospect, so I am not claiming to know what solution should have been applied. Following new security rules, baggage checks, and random personal checks clearly would slow down the process and change air travel forever. Airport organizers somehow thought this problem could be solved simply by having people arrive at the airport earlier. In fact the result of this "solution" was to add to the real problem.

Expecting caos in the airport I arrived at London Heathrow three hours before my scheduled flight time for Los Angeles. What I saw was an almost unbelievable cue, even longer than I had experienced shortly after 11 September. During the next two and a half hours I stood in a line that moved slowly at times and not at all each time a set of people had to be moved to the front to prevent missing their flight. Almost simultaneously with our making it to the ticket counter we heard airline employees calling on anyone in line for the LA flight to move forward.

I could only conclude that the situation would have been improved if they had asked people to arrive one hour before their flight times. Isn't it obvious that the more time before their flight people are asked to arrive at an airport the longer the lines will be as well as the increase in caos. Those passengers who arrived one hour before the flight were standing behind the ones that arrived two hours before the flight. They were moved to the front of the line one half hour before the flight. Can one always guarantee this? No, but that still doesn't make getting everyone to the airport earlier the solution; that is making the problem worse. The problem was not caused by people arriving late; it was caused simply by spending to much time getting people through check in. It would not take a rocket scientist to guess that a method for getting people through check-in faster is the only way to solve the problem.

I am certainly not disappointed that no further airplane hijackings have occurred ASE. Outside of the anthrax scare, which has not yet been attributed to Al Queda, nothing outside of some idiot trying to light up his shoe has occurred. Is this is all Al Queda has to throw at us? Are they really that weak or are they waiting on the magic moment to strike again? What really is their capability? The Palestinians are blowing up someone in Israel every day. If you have enough ordinary people willing to die like that, is it really that hard to do? We haven’t so much as lost a MacDonald’s. How much has all of our new security prevented from happening? If Al Queda is anything as strong, wide spread, and sophisticated as we have been led to believe, why at least did the shoe-lighting-idiot not have an electronic detonator? Why hasn’t someone else blown himself up here? All I have is questions, but something here just does not add up.