To many, `fly or drive?' not much of a question

Travel: Airport hassles and lingering fears keep some Americans on the ground - and an industry struggling to survive.

September 07, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

When the nation's airports shut down after the Sept. 11 attacks, air travelers first wondered when they could fly again. Then, after government-mandated security checks required them to take off shoes, open suitcases and submit to rigorous pat-downs, many wondered if they would fly again.

Americans have returned to the skies, but they're not flying as they did before. The tanking economy and intensified security have pushed customers to drive when they can - and brace themselves for airport hassles when they can't.

Some airlines, desperate for business, have slashed fares. But some passengers will never come back. For them, no discount is worth the anxiety.

"The Sept. 11 attacks were a terrible blow to me," said Baltimore resident Harriet Schulman, who lived through the Holocaust. "It sort of set me back psychologically. I don't want to go through that again."

Schulman and her husband, Murray, gave up a pair of free round-trip tickets because she refused to fly - anywhere. Instead of flying to Las Vegas for a vacation, they chose a bus trip through Canada. Next, they're driving to Virginia.

After Sept. 11, the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland in Towson offered its first formal classes addressing the fear of flying. Eleven people have completed the six-session class, and a third program begins this fall.

Instructor Stephnie Thomas used to offer only individual therapy sessions to people afraid of flying. Now, she offers courses.

"After Sept. 11, a lot more people were more afraid to fly," she said.

In the first days after the attacks, airports were closed and planes were grounded as federal officials desperately tried to revise security measures.

When a limited number of flights resumed Sept. 13, airports reopened with a grim new atmosphere. Police officers scanned the piers, and passengers found themselves wary of the person in the next seat.

But over the year, anxiety faded. And soon, for many travelers, the fear of flying was overtaken by a hatred of the hassle.

Changing routines

First, airlines told travelers to arrive at least three hours early, then said 90 minutes was sufficient. The Federal Aviation Administration first banned tweezers in carry-on luggage, then said they were permitted.

Airports abolished curbside check-in, then encouraged it - despite police shooing vehicles away from the curb.

Security officials occasionally shut down entire airports to rescreen all passengers if one person slipped through a checkpoint.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, television news crews peppered passengers with questions after bomb threats, security rescreenings and anthrax scares. Bomb-sniffing dogs, firefighters, hazardous materials crews and rifle-toting National Guard troops patrolled the airport halls. The announcement system bellowed warnings about unattended packages.

Reuniting families, no longer able to reconnect at the gate, devised other meeting places around the airport, which continued its $1.8 billion expansion.

A year after the attacks, many of the airport problems have settled down. But the routines that seemed so familiar are changed forever.

Security officials unpack diaper bags, instruct teen-agers to remove shoes, tell elderly women to unwrap baked goods tucked in suitcases and ask middle-aged businessmen to empty pockets.

They rifle through paperbacks and ask passengers to drink from water bottles and coffee cups. One woman at Kennedy Airport complained of having to drink her own bottled breast milk - a security request few could have once imagined.

No one is immune - even former Vice President Al Gore was searched in Milwaukee, and Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan had to strip to his underwear because his metal hip set off a detector at Reagan National Airport. Anything metal can trigger suspicion, from bra underwires to shoe buckles to safety pins.

`People are tired'

Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation security consultant, said the security hassles are costing the airlines billions and contributing to a decrease in revenues.

"There is a major threat to flying, and it's called ineptitude," he said. "People are tired of showing their identification 16 times, tired of being taken out of line and being pawed at."

Frank Rusk, a Sterling, Va., property supervisor who recently flew with his wife from Baltimore to Jacksonville, Fla., said the security doesn't make him feel safer.

"Half the baggage handlers and security screeners don't look like they're paying attention to what's going on," he said.

Certain ethnic groups have had even more to complain about. Manjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, said Americans of Sikh descent are flying less frequently after several incidents in which screeners told them to remove their turbans in public.

The hassles at the airport continue to drive formerly frequent flyers to alternatives.

The alternatives

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