After 9/11: Are We Safer in the Air?

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Do you remember how much courage it took to get on a plane in the weeks and months following 9/11? One of the first things a United pilot did when he returned to flying that September was to thank his passengers for their bravery; he also urged them to "stand up, together" against terrorists. The entire cabin erupted in applause.

Now it is ten years later and those fears are fading. If anything tells us that, it's the airfare prices for flights on the anniversary and so far, I am seeing no discounts for flying this Sept. 11, as there might be if the airlines expected a dip in ridership. On most major routes (at least as of a few days ago), you'll pay the same base airfare whether you fly Sept. 4 or Sept. 11 or Sept. 18.

I suspect this year some will see flying on 9/11 as something of a badge of honor. As it should be. Which brings me to perhaps the biggest change since the September terrorist attacks: the attitude of the flying public. We will never again be passive passengers.

Air Travel After 9/11: Is It Safer?

Passivity used to pay off; before 9/11, bad guys in the U.S. took over planes for one of two reasons, usually: to get somewhere (often Cuba) or to get something (such as D.B. Cooper's demand for $200,000). In most of those cases, passengers were released unharmed, so it stands to reason that many aboard the 9/11 planes figured they too would eventually be freed which gave the terrorists the element of surprise. I mean, who would have thought planes would be used as weapons?

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We wised up quickly; in fact, the element of surprise disappeared altogether by the time the fourth plane was in the air over Pennsylvania. That's when a heroic band of passengers on United flight 93 prevented their hijackers from using the plane against any final target.

Passengers have proved themselves again and again since 9/11, starting just a few months later: several of them helped subdue Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber on an American Airlines flight that December; then, on Christmas Day 2009, a Northwest passenger thwarted the man known as the Underwear Bomber.

Has Flight Safety Improved Since 9/11?

So are we safer in the air since 9/11? Yes, thanks to passengers like these, and also thanks to a numbing array of new security measures. But security comes at a price and it comes with no guarantees.

Our security ought to stop anything these days, stringent as it is: we've gone from the metal detectors of the 1970's to post 9/11 body scans and enhanced pat-downs. Cockpit doors are now fortified, and the sky marshal program put into place by Pres. Nixon has been expanded. Some pilots are even armed. But the biggest change has to be the sheer numbers of people watching out for us: the approximately 50,000 TSA employees we see at the airports every time we fly.

At first, most accepted the TSA's water bottle ban, the shoe removal, the possibility of an up-close-and-personal pat-down; it's what we had to do to be safe. But as the years went by and the occasional gun or other dangerous item got through security even as stories about little kids and old ladies being singled out for "special" treatment multiplied, critics became increasingly aggressive, sneering at security as "theater". Is it worth it? I'm sure it has thwarted some criminals, but the system is far from perfect.

In the meantime, the overall air travel experience since 9/11 has gone to hell in a handbasket.

Once planes began flying again, there were lots of empty seats - the fear factor again - which led the airlines to begin cutting capacity. That helped some carriers survive, but the sluggish economy was of no help, which led to the introduction of shocking new fees (American Airlines slapped on its first checked-bag fee in 2008). Still, a number of carriers went into bankruptcy anyway, while some like ATA, Aloha, Skybus and more simply vanished.

Air Travel After 9/11: Is It Safer?

Surviving airlines, meanwhile, kept cutting perks; food service, which was severely curtailed after 9/11, reached its zenith last fall when Continental offered the last free meal in coach. Speaking of customer service, if you want to talk to a human being at an airline, be prepared to fork over $25 for the privilege, but you may find the non-human airport kiosk quicker and more responsive.

What else have we lost since 9/11? A certain innocence, and something else; I suppose you could call it the joy of travel. Look around next time you're at the airport and see how people dress. Sweats, ratty jeans, and even saggy pants but you know what? It's not inappropriate attire, not when you consider that flying these days is no longer a pleasant adventure, but a chore. The hassle of security, the difficult encounters with overworked airline employees; what is the point of dressing up like Mad Men extras for that?

But still we fly. We are wiser and way more cynical since 9/11, and we put up with more garbage than ever before, but we know no one is going to stop us from flying. The terrorists tried but ten years later, we keep getting on planes. We fly.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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