Notes from a plane trip post September 11, 2001:
Flying is a strangely quiet experience now. With only ticketed passengers allowed through security, the boarding gates are positively ghostlike.
No more balloons saying “Welcome home, college graduate” held proudly aloft by smiling parents. No more little children asking over and over, “Is daddy’s plane here yet”. No more final whispered conversations between lovers about to part. Just quiet people sitting quietly.
A man behind me talks on the phone to his girlfriend, relating the horror of trying to get through the huge security line. Even as he complains he keeps saying, “It’s not that I mind. I’m glad they’re taking more care.” And then he complains some more.
Two men with foreign accents sit down next to me. I am strangely relieved to hear them talking about plans they have for next week. It tells me that they plan to have a next week.
And suddenly I find myself very tired of the constant state of alert I’ve been in since entering the airport. I don’t want to have to scan every face and try to put a story with every person – a story that precludes the possilibity of blowing me out of the sky.
After such a tense pre-boarding time, the normalcy of the pre-flight announcements comes almost as comic relief. My seat cushion as a flotation device – get real, that thing is as hard as a rock and would sink as fast.
But the optimism of believing that announcement valid, despite the pictures of planes flying into buildings that fill my brain, is critical to my ability to still get on a plane.
I see the new metal door covering the cockpit and feel a little safer. When the pilot comes out to use the bathroom during the flight, I’m distressed that he doesn’t shut the door and find myself keeping an alert eye on it till he goes back in and it locks beind him.
The smell of the airline meal hits and gallows huimor overtakes me as I wonder if God could really be cruel enough to let this be my last meal.
The man across the aisle from me pulls his tray out of the arm of his seat and the tray comes completely out in his hand. Being a real Alaskan, he whips some duck tape out of his carry on luggage and tapes the table back in place. Then he leans over to his seatmate, an elderly woman, and shows her how to use the DVD player to watch her movie.
It’s a moment of kindness, a simple act of gentle humanity that does more to reassure me abouty the flight than all the metal doors and security checks in the world.
I settle into my book of choice, a collection of Dave Barry columns. I need to laugh. My seatmate starts complaining about the little girl in the seat in front of us. The flight suddenly takes on a weird feeling of normalcy – especially after I’m able to find enough stuff in the area immediately surrounding me to know I have things to throw at any potential terrorist.
My sister is an hour late picking me up in Philly because of airport renovations and new security routes.
It isn’t till I’m in her car on the Atlantic City Expressway that I take my first deep breath since leaving Anchorage. The airlines are doing everything they can to make flying a safe experience, to bring us back to the airports. But something has changed. And I doubt if it will change back again in my lifetime.