No Fly Zone

It doesn't take a hero just to get on a damn plane.


There was little traffic on the final stretch of the highway we took out to Dulles International Airport. That made sense. As my girlfriend, Alice, drove me to catch a flight to the West Coast, it was Wednesday, Sept. 11, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Unsurprisingly, fewer people were choosing to fly that day.

Me, I had no choice. I had a work-related obligation to be out in the San Francisco Bay Area on the 12th. And while I probably could have arranged to fly out a day early, I couldn't have justified the extra expense and the extra day away from the office, except in terms of my low-level anxiety about flying on 9/11.

That anxiety became rather less than low-level on Tuesday night. I had trouble getting to sleep, slept fitfully when I finally achieved it, and woke up early, before the alarm clock rang. I didn't need a shrink to tell me why I was nervous this week—I've flown a few times, and even crossed a few borders, on a number of occasions since the attacks, but I'm just superstitious enough to worry about this particular anniversary. Plus, the government had thoughtfully announced, the morning of my flight, that there was a heightened likelihood of a new terrorist attack that day.

As we neared the airport, Alice and I listened to parts of President Bush's speech on the radio (and were equally dismayed at how banal it was, how far it fell short of expressing the complicated and turbulent emotions we were feeling; why can't he hire better speechwriters?). But listening to it kept us distracted a bit from the imminent fact of my own flight.

Just before we got to Dulles, the sparse traffic we'd been experiencing most of the way became a knot of congestion. Police and National Guardsmen were stopping every truck on the road and inspecting it for possible threats. Even though I'm generally skeptical of the value of most of the increased security measures we've seen in or near airports since last year, just this once I was thankful. The extra care being taken near Dulles (from which American Airlines Flight 77, which had been hijacked and redirected to crash into the Pentagon a year ago, took off) was psychologically calming. Thanks for this one, Uncle Sam.

Then we got to the terminal. Alice's minivan was one of only two or three vehicles dropping off passengers. "It was eerie how empty the departures area was," she told me later. I got my bags, Alice and I kissed, and I walked over to the curbside check-in personnel. An AP reporter who had been hovering there buttonholed me and asked me predictable questions—"Are you nervous?" and "What did your friends say when you told them you would be flying today?"—to which I gave unmemorable answers.

When I got inside the terminal, proceeded to my gate, and waited for my flight (security was amazingly less intrusive than I've been used to recently—no belt unbuckling, no shoe removal, no chemical swab of my computer bag), it struck me that I was seeing as few people in this terminal as I had ever seen in any major airport on a weekday. I've flown on Thanksgiving Day and on Christmas Day; the thin crowds and the undercurrent of giddiness that every passenger seemed to show gave Wednesday a weird holiday resonance.

The flight itself—a Boeing 777 to Denver, where I would change to a smaller plane for the final leg into Oakland—was less than half full, but otherwise unremarkable, except for a couple of things. Just before we pulled away from the gate, passengers were directed by the captain to look out to the left of the plane. On the tarmac, the gate crew and the terminal personnel had come out to wave and applaud the plane's crew and passengers. It was both touching and embarrassing—although not quite as embarrassing as when the captain thanked us profusely for flying today, telling us passengers that "you are our heroes." Thanks, but since last September I have a much more refined idea of who counts as a hero, and I wince to hear the term used loosely nowadays.

When the drinks cart came around, I ordered a double scotch—the flight attendant didn't have change for my 20-dollar bill. I was supposed to get 12 dollars back, but what with the small number of people in the plane, she had only eight dollars in change. "Well," I suggested, "you could always bring me one more." She nodded silently and went to get the third minibottle for me.

There were other uncharacteristically emotional announcements from the captain and other flight personnel on the flight to Denver, and later on the flight to Oakland. About remembering the dead, and moving forward with our lives, and so on. The best was from a flight attendant whose evocations of memory and hope, while probably in language neither simpler nor more poetic than the President's had been that morning, managed to make me tear up a little.

By the time I deplaned in Oakland, the experience of this flight had begun already to blend into my memories of every other cross-country flight I'd ever taken. It had been wearying, I was tired and stiff and cranky, the flight had been unremarkable and uneventful. Which meant that, by the standards of September 11, the whole thing had been utterly beautiful.