Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 Years After September 11

If you are old enough, you may remember a time when checking bags on a flight was free, when security lines were a breeze to get through--just toss your bag on the conveyor belt and walk through the scanner--when you could greet your friends and family at the gate rather than a designated welcome area with hundreds of other people. Yep, those were the days, the days before all the increased security, before the hike in various airline fees, the days before September 11, 2001, when two planes were hijacked by terrorists and deliberately flown into the twin towers in New York City, forever changing American's lives forever.

Not since the day that John F. Kennedy was shot has there been an event with so much significance that everyone can remember exactly what they were doing and where they were when they heard about it. Now, 10 years later, the effects of that day still ripple through our daily routines. Terror levels are broadcast on all news channels, politicians still reference the events in their speeches, American troops are being sent to fight a war brought on by what happened on that fateful Tuesday. It penetrates everything, from the state of our economy to how we get around the world. In fact, it's impact on the travel industry has probably been the most significant.

Right after 9/11, people were terrified to get back in the air. Airlines suffered huge losses as more people stopped flying and opted for ground transportation instead. Recovery was slow, as more and more people trickled back into airports, but the experience of air travel would never be the same. Suddenly, everyone required a boarding pass in order to get past security and into the terminal. No more goodbye hugs at the gate or welcome home kisses the minute you walk off the plane, those are long gone. And speaking of security, we all know how much that has changed in the last 10 years. Prior to the attacks, security was pretty basic. Now, there are more rules and regulations that passengers have to follow, it can be difficult to remember them all. (I cannot tell you how many times I have forgotten to take off a belt, or remove my sandals, or take my bag of toiletries out of my purse.)

Passenger going through security.
Credit: WSJ/Lucas Jackson
As various events occurred, security added more and more layers to the process. When a man tried to explode a bomb hidden in his shoe in 2001, TSA made all passengers remove shoes for X-ray screening; when a 2006 plot to use explosives in liquids, we were all limited to the quantity of liquids in our carry ons. And now with the new body scanners and intrusive patdowns, passengers have even more to deal with as angry TSA workers eye them with suspicion--or oggle them, which can be just as bad, trust me.

And then there are the smaller things that people might not notice, like the Septemeber 11 security fee that passengers are charged on every ticket they purchase, $2.50 on every flight, up to $10 per round trip. Just last year, we paid $2.1 billion from that fee alone. If you really want to hear a scary number, the International Air Transport Association estimates that airlines spent $7.4 billion on security in 2010. To compare, in 2000, airlines spent $448 million on security. It's a significant difference. No wonder airlines are hemorrhaging money and desperately trying to bring in more revenue by hiking ticket prices, charging extra fees for checking bags and taking away free snacks--I'm still mad about the pretzels, Continental.

Security lines in BC, Canada. Credit: Guardian
But the effects are not only felt here in the U.S., they have hit millions of people around the world in ways we could never imagine. Obviously, security measures were upped at international airports, too, and foreign carriers changed their policies and procedures to adapt to the lower demand for air travel. But the heightened security adopted after 9/11 has discouraged many tourists from coming to America, hurting job growth in the hospitality industry. The government has created unweildy entry procedures for visitors, like lengthened wait times for visas to enter the country. Our country is in desperate need of more foreign visitors to help stimulate spending and feed money into our economy, but the backlog of visa applications has deterred a lot of travelers. In Brazil, for example, waiting periods can exceed four months. That kind of delay could cost our country hundreds of thousands of potential visitors who will choose to spend their money in other countries that do not force them to go through such a difficult and expensive process.

I realize that most of the changes have been made to keep us and our country safe, and overall, I feel we are relatively safe. But I admit that I still get irritated by the flying experience sometimes, as I'm sure we all do. I hate paying extra fees for bags, and then worrying about getting overhead space if I choose not to check. I hate when the security lines are so long that even though you give yourself enough time to make your flight, you still might cut it close.

Remembering 9/11 Credit: MSN.com
What I truly hate the most is the uneasiness that can still come when getting on a plane, the fear of not knowing whether or not you are truly safe. The acts of September 11 left an impression on all Americans, whether we had a direct connection or not. While watching the special coverage at the memorial site in New York, NBC showed a montage of video clips and images from the attacks, and I couldn't help but cry. There remains an overwhelming sadness associated with that day, because it showed how vulnerable our country can be and how far we still have to go. Our country will never get over what happened, never forget the innocent people who lost their lives, and will continue to fight for our freedom and safety, no matter what kind of small inconveniences that might bring about. It's all worth it in the end.

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