Return to Normalcy III

Flying after the attacks


From every quarter, we've been assured that America is forever changed in the wake of last Tuesday's nightmarish events. Perhaps, though the resilience of everyday life, of people's urgency to return to cherished habits, is probably being underestimated. In a strange way that is by turns heartening and unsettling, Americans are likely to return quickly to life as usual.

The most obvious changes in the warp and woof of American life wrought by last week's suicide bombers have been most immediately apparent in our airports, which were first closed completely and then reopened with far tougher security procedures in place. (As of today, only Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport remains closed.) On Friday, I experienced firsthand the difference between the old security regime and the new. I had tickets for a Southwest Airlines shuttle flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Oakland, purchased weeks ago, in order to attend a friend's wedding. Friday was Southwest's first full day of operation after last week's tragedy.

The L.A. airport-once publicly targeted by the Unabomber and other terrorists–has instituted extraordinary security measures, including some not in place at all airports: Private vehicles are, at least for now, barred from entering the airport itself. You can no longer drop off or pick up passengers curbside. Everyone must enter and leave from the satellite parking lots, blocks away, and get ferried to and fro in shuttle buses.

The other changes in security are in place everywhere across the country: an end to curbside baggage check-in (a feel-good "security" measure that will have no effect on crimes such as Tuesday's) and the barring of all but ticketed passengers from airline gates beyond the security checkpoint (again, an act of dubious security virtues).

Made nervous by newspaper reports of airport chaos and some bad reports from colleagues who tried to fly earlier on Friday, I strove to get to the airport two hours before departure time. I was stymied by traffic flow changes near the airport. Where I would normally veer to the right to curve around to the satellite parking, cops had set up two traffic-coned rows, one for commercial vehicles (taxis, shuttles) and one for private ones. I missed getting into the proper lane and had to turn myself around three times before finally finding the entrance to the lot. The path was blocked by a frustrated woman yelling at an attendant that she had been shuffled into this lot by cops but didn't want to be there at all. I had to swerve around her. In the lot, parking was abundant.

On the shuttle ride to the actual airport, there was no talk about the disasters but much chatter about the travel-logistics nightmares they had caused—already, people's responses to the attacks were focusing on local details. The airport lanes were empty and quiet as the shuttle drove in. Though I had an electronic ticket, the new security measures meant that I had to stand on line at the ticket counter anyway to get a ticket-like piece of paper saying I could go through.

I was the only person in line at the ticket counter, though my flight was leaving in just over an hour. I asked the attendant if it had been this quiet all day. With a tight-lipped smile, not wanting to discuss it, he nodded a curt affirmative. He asked the traditional two questions about packing my own bags and keeping them in my possession.

At the foot of the escalator leading up to the security checkpoint and the gates, three Southwest employees made sure I was a ticketed passenger. They descended upon me, the only customer around, eagerly. Going through the checkpoint for me was normal and easy: No requests to open my bag, no waving of wands. Behind me, another passenger was asked politely if he would open and turn on his laptop. "Whatever you guys need me to do," he replied.

In the gates, some of the traditional shops were closed. (With only ticketed passengers allowed through, many of these airport businesses could be in trouble.) McDonald's was closed, as was Bow Wow Meow, purveyors of assorted animal kitsch, and Brookstone, merchants of traveler's aids both useful and whimsical. Both airport bars were open, but each with less than a handful of customers. I had never seen an airport concourse more empty before midnight. My flight, a shuttle at the beginning of the weekend, had only around 40 passengers. Normally, it would have been packed.

I watched one flight arrive, travelers trudging off forlornly with no eager spouses, kids, or friends to greet them; such familiar scenes of reunion may be a thing of the past. The canned message over the loudspeaker, one I was quite familiar with, reminded us all that solicitors are not sponsored by the airport, and that you needn't pay them. However, with the new ticketed-passengers-only policy, the kids selling candy and deaf people selling pencils had all disappeared.

Conversations in the concourse and on the flight avoided airline tragedies entirely. Southwest alluded to them only once, thanking us at the end of the flight for flying with them in these "trying times for the aviation industry." Service was attentive and even cheerful, as usual. In many—I'm tempted to say most—ways, the experience of flying was same as it ever was, except with fewer people.