The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 45.0°F | Overcast

Fear of Flying

Attacks Lead to Air Travel Changes

By Eun J. Lee

ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR

How safe would you feel flying from Logan to Dulles International, with a layover in Newark? If the person sitting next to you were of Arab descent and had a hard time speaking English, would you feel uneasy? What other thoughts might go through your head knowing that less than two weeks earlier, four planes had been hijacked from these three airports?

These questions and many others were racing through my mind this past weekend, and they were not hypothetical. I had planned a trip to visit the nation’s capital weeks before the atrocious attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, at a time when many thought the biggest news of the day was Michael Jordan’s rumored return to basketball. My original travel itinerary was a short one-and-a-half hour direct flight from Boston to Washington’s Reagan National Airport, but these plans had to be changed since Reagan airport is still closed almost three weeks after the attacks.

For days after the attacks, I had no idea if I would even be able to fly, or if I would even want to. Some argue that it might be safer to fly now than ever before, since security has been beefed up significantly. However, I think everyone is more aware of the possible dangers associated with flying. During my trip, I found that many things had changed in the ways of air travel since the last time I flew on an airplane through Logan and Dulles, which was still less than a month ago.

New security brings new delays

If you’ve followed the news or been to any airline web sites, you’ve heard that you should arrive at the airport approximately two to two and a half hours before your departure time. This is due to the fact that curbside baggage checks and checking in at the gate no longer exist.

I arrived at the airport about an hour before my departure time on my way to Washington. Still, I had time to browse through the newspaper stand before my flight started boarding. I did not check any bags, but I doubt that it would have been much different if I had. At Logan airport, there was a line by the counter where people who had bags to check stood to get them inspected. The inspection took place at a large table, where airline security went through the bags while their owners watched. There were no such inspections at Dulles or Newark airports.

Only ticketed passengers are allowed past the security check. I was surprised to see the dramatic decrease in the number of people in the terminals. Not only was the terminal barren, but there was also a paucity of people flying; on my return trip to Boston from Newark, the Boeing 737 was only half-filled.

Also, picture IDs are required whenever you have to show your ticket to check in, to get past the security check, and to board the airplane. I think that the airport security was so focused on making sure that you were who you said you were that it is quite possible that they could have overlooked some other things. For example, on each of my four flights, the flight attendant asked whether everyone was on the correct flight least twice before we pushed off the runway. I have to say that these announcements did nothing to ease my mind about safety.

Airlines ban simple hygiene items

The list of contraband items prohibited from taking on an airplane has grown to include tweezers, disposable razors, and toenail clippers among other things, so forget maintaining a high level of personal hygiene when flying. Also, I would like to see how someone could hijack a plane with tweezers; I suppose it would be a menacing threat to the “uni-brow” population. I have to admit that I knowingly went through the security check with a disposable razor in my luggage. However, I am not sure if I necessarily felt better knowing that I had gotten away with it after I realized that if I could, there were probably many others who had, too.

I have to admit that despite all the new security procedures, I still wondered if we were really safe. I almost wished that the airline officials would frisk me and go through my bags for having a disposable razor, or question me about my outdated South Carolina drivers license picture which was taken four years ago, when I had bangs, glasses and braces. I still think that if someone really wanted to terrorize the country, they still could. Perhaps they might think twice before trying to hijack an airplane now, but what about a year from now? Or five years? Will the new security measures stay indefinitely, or will they slowly fade away to what they were before? The whole situation makes me think of a quote from my high school science teacher. “Make it idiot-proof, and someone will invent a better idiot.”

The most disturbing part of my trip had nothing to do with a terrorist, but a normal citizen. On my flight from Boston to Newark, I was somewhat disconcerted when a middle-aged Arab man took his seat approximately a minute before they closed the cabin doors and departed from the terminal. The same thing happened on my trip back from Newark to Boston with a group of foreigners who seemed quite irritated when they got onto the plane. I suspect that airport security must have singled these people out for further security checks due to their racial background. I can’t say that realizing this made me feel any safer at all.

On my return flight to Newark, the multitude of New York skyscrapers seemed just a jumble without the focal point of the World Trade Towers. Many things have changed in the past few weeks. In some ways, the attacks have united us as a nation, but we’ve lost part of our innocence and sense of security. The question of whether we feel comfortable flying is just one of many that we have to ask ourselves as we reassess our priorities.