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


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.

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