Brave new world for air passengers

Flying: For even the most experienced travelers, changes in the aftermath of the attacks are turning well-planned days to chaos.

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 19, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Sally Marsh had it all laid out on a 4-inch square of white paper. Stranded when the airlines shut down last week, like millions of other business travelers, she was back Monday morning in her home office in Dickeyville, eager to regroup and find simple satisfaction in checking off, one by one, the items crowding her to-do list.

Then the brave new world of air travel intervened.

At 9 a.m. she learned that US Airways had canceled her next morning's flight to Providence, R.I., and the white paper ended up crumpled in the wastebasket.

Like many other frequent fliers, Marsh is struggling this week to adjust to the new, less efficient realities of air travel and all the uncertainties that come with them.

A consultant for Prentice Hall, she travels almost daily to schools between Maine and Washington, D.C., advising teachers on how to get the most from their science and math books.

It took her just six months to rack up the 100 trips required to join US Airway's Chairman's Preferred program, which offers perks for its best customers. But for even the most experienced travelers, the changes in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are turning well-planned days to chaos.

For Marsh, the cancellation of her flight meant leaving a day early. It required quick phone work: She booked new flights, changed car rental plans, found a hotel and packed for the unexpected overnight trip.

She was still in her bathrobe on the phone at 1 p.m. Monday, with the airline telling her she'd have to drive to its ticket center in Pikesville to pick up a paper receipt to get through the tightened airport security. That side trip ate up another hour. No way could she be at the airport four hours before her 6:25 p.m. flight, as officials at Baltimore-Washington International Airport had recommended.

She considered booking a later flight to Providence, the last one of the evening. But "I just can't take a chance that it will be canceled, too," she said.

By the time she walked out her front door at 3:35 p.m. for the airport, she'd been able to accomplish little other than changing her travel plans. There had been no opportunity to prepare for her trips to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York later in the week. Nor had she made an important phone call for a neighborhood fund-raising project, mailed books to a friend, dealt with last week's mail, reprogrammed her cellular phone, filed her expense report or cleaned her office.

"I'm not real happy about this," she said, hoisting her briefcase and overnight bag into the back of her station wagon.

A welcome turn

But the next leg of the trip took a surprising and welcome turn. Forewarned that the airport could be jammed with long lines at ticket counters and security checkpoints, Marsh had an inkling otherwise. After all, she'd had no problem either reserving a seat on the evening flight or rebooking her rental car in Providence.

In the Fast Park lot, she saw the first evidence that travelers were staying home. "It's empty!" she said, pulling into a parking lot with more empty spaces than cars. She took her pick of spots. "It's usually packed. This is a piece of cake."

A few minutes later, a shuttle bus dropped her at the terminal, which proved to be similarly devoid of customers. Checking in at the ticket counter, she stood second in a line of two and had to wait less than a minute.

Did she really need a paper ticket to clear security or would her e-mail receipt do, she asked the ticket agent. "There is some debate," came the unsatisfactory reply. "They've gone back and forth."

Four minutes later, she moved on to the passenger checkpoint. As a half-dozen people waited, the new routine became clear.

Pointing to illustrations of scissors and a nail file posted on a sign next to her, a uniformed woman with a two-way radio asked each passenger if he or she were carrying either - or even a pair of nail clippers. Marsh produced a small pair of cuticle trimmers, which the woman confiscated. If Marsh returned through the airport within five days, she was told, she could reclaim them.

Meanwhile, the metal detector she passed through didn't notice the bangle of silver bracelets and a Rolex watch on her left wrist. Her bags weren't opened, and neither were those of other passengers in line.

But one flight attendant was forced to turn over a corkscrew he was carrying, and a middle-aged passenger was stopped and interrogated when, after being cleared to go to a gate once, he left the boarding area and tried to go back through security - a practice no one would have questioned in the past.

Speaking into her radio, the guard spelled the man's name and turned a sharp eye on his ticket stub. "Do I look like I'm from Iraq?" he asked belligerently. "Do I look like I'm from Iran?"

An airline official arrived to ask more questions, and eventually the passenger was cleared to his gate.

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