A short history of post-9/11 flying

September 8, 2021

Jetlagged after the 16 hour flight from LAX, which had followed six hours of flying from Raleigh to L.A., I woke up at 3:45 AM in the Millennium Hotel in Sydney, Australia on September 12, 2001 and turned on the TV to see if the inanity of talking heads would lull me back to sleep. That didn’t happen. The shocking horror of the 9/11 attacks dominated reporting on every channel. The 14 hour time difference meant I was watching live coverage at 1:45 PM on 9/11/01 in the United States.

By then it was a known terrorist attack, and more were expected. Little else was certain. I immediately phoned my wife back in Raleigh and advised her to gas up the car and have water, food, and go-bags ready in case more attacks came. We made a plan for emergency evacuation that included having cash in hand in case credit cards stopped working (I was trying to imagine worst-case scenarios).  After hanging up, I reflected that this tragedy would certainly have a negative impact on the experience of flying, though I couldn’t yet imagine how. I recall thinking that the epicurean delights of flying in First Class in the luxurious QANTAS 747-400 front cabin I’d just enjoyed might be in jeopardy. I had no idea how right I was.

Civilian air traffic resumed on September 13, albeit with increased security measures that echo down the years to now. I returned from Australia a few weeks later to a vastly different world of flying. At the time I was flying every week, sometimes several times weekly. I learned quickly to adjust my arrival at airports from one hour before flight times to two or more hours in advance. The extra time and long queues took a toll on my psyche and my productivity. It was wearying and stressful. I had to factor the uncertainty of security queues into my travel planning and time with clients. Clients didn’t like it, and I sure didn’t, either. It was especially bad at places like Chicago O’Hare and even Raleigh/Durham, my home airport. Being a super-elite flyer didn’t count for much, suddenly. First class and TSA Pre lines hadn’t yet been contrived.

Ditto for boarding. In the early days after 9/11, TSA agents would show up at gates with folding tables and randomly search carryon bags when boarding commenced, despite everyone having been subjected to thorough screening already. Holding a first class seat counted for nothing; many times I was “selected” because I never checked my luggage, boarded first, and therefore made a juicy target.  The searches took a long time and usually ensured the overhead compartments, even in first class, were full by the time I was allowed to continue into the jet bridge. Flight attendants, themselves stressing over new security-related routines, had little care or sympathy for my plight if I couldn’t find a place to put my suitcase, no matter my ticket’s high fare basis. 

Fear of the unknown hung over airports and flying like a dense fog. The existential threat of more terrorist attacks on airplanes was unrelenting. A palpable scent of dread permeated the skies. I frequently overheard airport club murmurings that the terrorists had succeeded in killing the general sense of wellbeing in naïve America, even if the perpetrators were rooted out and destroyed. Flying would not be the same again. I tended to agree. Flying had ceased to be fun. The armored cockpit doors that began to be installed on every airplane represented more than a way to prevent further attacks; they signaled a chilling of the friendly skies.

Lots of grumbling, too, in the immediate years after 9/11 about the steep decline in airline service. Slow decay in service and comfort had become evident in the 90s, and we very frequent flyers began to sense that airlines were using 9/11 as a convenient excuse to impose additional misery and austerity upon its highest revenue customers. The outrageous hypocrisy of grinning airline executives in video ads claiming their carrier’s service superiority grated on my nerves. Food and beverage service diminished, first apparent on routes under 1,000 miles, a standard that continued to drop until virtually no meals were offered. I certainly experienced it on every airline and constantly complained. Despite my millions and millions of miles, all I got in return amounted to a few placating computer-signed letters of apology and sometimes an extra thousand frequent miles dumped into my account.

But frequent flyer programs were already twenty years old in 2001 and becoming long in the tooth.  Even then airlines were beginning to look for ways to make program benefits harder to obtain.  So an extra grand of miles was a drop in the bucket. Mostly, my complaints fell on deaf ears.

Still, business flyers like me clamored in public and made such a fuss about crummy schedule-keeping and sucky service and ever-spiraling fares that service began to improve a little by 2008; well, at least for denizens of the front cabin.  Then the Great Recession of 2009 hit, the second big blow to the airline industry.  Under the cover of dismal bookings, airlines resumed cutting service and paring back frequent flyer benefits on a continuum to the present. 

Made worse, as I recently observed, by the travel ravages of the third big blow: COVID.  As I wrote in that post, on a recent flight from Minneapolis to Fargo, not even air-conditioning or water was available.  With no explanation from either the captain or the flight attendants, let alone an apology.  Just a one-word excuse: “Covid.”

I don’t need airlines to resume serving me Beluga caviar and Krug Champagne as was common in the 80s and 90s (though I wouldn’t turn either down), but the twenty year nose dive in service no longer excites me quite as much to get to RDU.

Yep, flying is just an expensive bus service now. Nonetheless, my short stint on this planet as animated star dust has been a rich and wonderful experience thanks to existing in the flying era. I’ve been able to see the world from a plane!

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