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Traveling in Troubled Times
by Denise McCluggage

Bargain airfares, the news report said, are not working as they were meant to. Nor are the cheery exhortations to get out there and fly by President Bush and others. The number of air passengers is still far lower than last year and business travel, already off even before the terrorist attack, continues to drop.

Yet those who have taken to the uncertain skies since 9-11 have not always been rewarded with an empty seat at their elbow or a quick passage through a check-in line. Airlines have lopped off a large number of flights and decreased their work force.

Thus your options as a flyer are fewer and the annoyance factor is greater, matters not easily offset by the inducement of spectacular bargains to some destinations. Particularly with many nervous flyers, made ever more nervous by the hijackings, choosing to stay at home or go by car.
What is flying like since the calamity of September 11?

The worst thing about it is the inability to plan your time with any confidence. The uncertainty is at least exasperating and at most extremely stressful. Either way any pleasure you might have had in just the process of going somewhere has turned to watchful doubt. And fear of terrorists has nothing to do with it.

Those of us who fly frequently know exactly how much time it takes to get from home base to the airport, deal with the car, check baggage if we are checking, buy a paperback mystery, some M&M's and proceed to the gate with no undue pressure - just the steady progression of time's arrow to the moment of handing over the boarding pass and passing through the jet way.

At least that is my way (I'm not a dasher-through-airports breathless-arriver sort.) I automatically adjust the minimal home-to-plane time for day of the week, time of day, expected delays for on-the-way on-going roadwork and then add a small cushion. Sometimes I get through more pages of the paperback in my gate-side seat than at others. That's how time cushions work.

My first post-disaster flight was about three weeks after 9-11 (some intervening trips had been canceled.) I did my usual count-back from flight time to determine my in-the-car-and-moving time and then added 90 minutes more.

I needed it.

The check-in line was as long as a freight train so, being carry-on legal, I headed for the security gate. Whoops - that line snaked around, down, back leaving the tail very near the entrance to the terminal. Unimaginable!

I noted the time as I got in line.
Shuffle, shuffle. Natter with neighbors. ("That line's moving faster than ours." Etc.) Long, long story short - it took one hour and three minutes before I go (beepless) through the security gate.

The next time I flew I cranked in more time for that dreadful line. But where is it? What is different this time? Nothing apparent, but I am through the square arch in 4 minutes and on my way to the gate. But now I have 2 1/2 hours to while away until departure time.

Time to spare? Go by air.

On my next venture from home I "won" the computer lottery to have my luggage hand searched no less than four out of a possible five times. That means both checked and carry on bags. The searchers don gloves (usually latex but one guy had awkward leather gardening gloves and couldn't even manage the zippers!)

Truth be told, these troubled days you really have to want to go somewhere to endure the uncertainties, the hassles and the time that drifts by in uncomfortable seats at the gate. As the line crept forward on that first venture forth we reminisced about the old old days - when you simply arrived at the airport and in a few minutes wondered out on the tarmac and up the steps to your plane. No identification requested, no metal detectors, no evident security.

Of course the planes had propellers and sat with tails on the ground, They also bounced around even in mild weather and seem to land every time a wind sock appeared. Old days but not necessarily good old days.

But now in the post 9-11 era, is flying "safe?"

That, to me, is a puzzling question. Safe compared to what? To your home? Your car? Your supermarket? It is rather like asking is life "safe?" (None of us will survive it.) Suffice it to say that an individual flyer's chances of being on a hijacked plane are probably much less today than they were on September 10. Chances of falling out of the sky are probably the same as they were the day the Air Bus lost its tail over Long Island. Any one person's best protection against either of these calamities is the law of averages. As has it always been.

There are things you can do in life that have proven to improve your safety: Don't smoke; don't drink and drive or ride with people who do; don't overload your electrical circuits etc.

When flying, it helps your odds to choose airlines with good safety records and to search out non-stop flights. Statistically, the most dangerous things an airplane does are take off and land. Therefore a non-stop flight is "safer" than one with several stops.

Non-stop flights also offer less risk of misdirected luggage and missed connections. Thus they are more stress-free. But, in these days of airline hubs the non-stop between many destinations is harder to come by. And frequently more expensive, too.

Statistically, flying is also far safer than driving your car. And probably safer than putting up Christmas lights on a shaky ladder. The choice is yours. Just make it and forget it. Worrying about safety is non-productive.

Here are some ideas to help lessen the hassles and smooth your way through airports and security checks in this time of troubled traveling:

· Use paper tickets rather than electronic tickets. In case security delays cause you to miss a flight it is easier to rebook seats or switch to another airline with a paper ticket.

· Keep your tickets and your picture ID (driver's license, passport etc) handy for inspection until you are on your flight. Identity checks are more frequent now and being prepared saves time for everyone. (If you have an expired passport or old driver's license, use that; the name and the face are what's important, not the date. Keep the currently valid one tucked away safely and reduce chances of losing it.)

· Carry-on limits are now more strictly enforced. Before traveling check with your carrier as to size and number of bags you are allowed. Generally the limit is one bag and one "personal" item, which may be a handbag, briefcase or computer bag. If you favor small handbags think about using a fold-up tote bag that will swallow the handbag and also hold a camera, reading material and any airport purchases. Consolidate. Just make sure even at its fullest it fits under the seat.

· If you carry a laptop computer or a camera make sure they can be easily reached. Computers must now be removed from your bag and sent through the X-Ray machine on its own. (Put it in one of the supplied plastic containers to lessen the risk of it being damaged.) Security people may want to look through the lens of your camera.

· Jackets and coats must now be removed and sent through on the conveyor belt like your carry-ons. Pull your striptease and ready your laptop before you get to the security gate to hasten the process.

· Know which jewelry or belt buckles or shoes trigger the beep on the security gate and wear something else. You can remove offending jewelry and send it around the gate in the plastic containers but it takes time. Put pocket change in the plastic bowls first time through and avoid any possible triggering the alarm. The idea is to avoid beeps to begin with and breeze on to the gate. However, if you are randomly selected for a hand inspection accept it with good humor. Remind yourself this is intended to protect you.

· Pack with the awareness that strangers could well be pawing through your luggage. Your mother probably admonished you about going out with safety pins in your underwear. Well this is that embarrassing "accident" you were warned about. Don’t put anything in your bag you don't want on public display.

· Reconsider everything you have customarily carried with you pre 9-11. No knives - even tiny ones. No nail files, even dinky short ones that pivot out of miniature nail clippers. No scissors, even the feeble bitty ones in compact sewing kits. And no knitting needles. (Take up crossword puzzles to occupy your time: there are as yet no restrictions against pens or pencils though they seem to me more potentially dangerous than the tiny nail file a security guard in Hawaii apologetically broke off of my key-ring nail clippers.)

· Be aware of anything that might look dangerously sharp in an X-Ray machine and don't take it in a carry on. I now leave behind a favorite necklace with a long silver feather hanging from it. Experience taught me that it looks lethal on the screening machine.

· Limit the metal objects in your baggage. If your hairdryer has a gun shape get a folding one (or leave it behind - many hotels furnish them.) Consider taking less jewelry and accessorizing with scarves.

· Use assorted transparent bags for packing - for toiletries, jewelry, electronic gadgetry and even hosiery, underwear, sweaters etc. See-through bags afford quick inspection without the need to dump stuff out.

· Don't pack bags to capacity. Take less stuff or opt for a larger bag so that it can still be easily closed after everything is messed up by an inspector's rummaging.

· Even if you are an inveterate roll-on-roll-off traveler consider checking a bag, particularly if you want to take any dubious stuff with you, like the little sewing kit.

· Use a combination lock on your luggage rather than one needing a key that you have to fumble about for if an inspector wants a look inside.

· If you miss a flight, change flight times or airlines expect for your bags to be subjected to a hand inspection. It's in the rules.

· Understand that accurate anticipation of the time anything might take these days is impossible and accept with good humor whatever happens your way: long lines, a thorough search or a breeze-through with a long wait at the gate. Be prepared with reading material or phone "errands" to best use the time.

· If you don’t have a cell phone, get one and have it with you. This means to instant, personal communication can be reassuring in case some disruption (like that man in Atlanta running up a down escalator) sets off a major interruption of flight plans.

· Take deep breaths, spread kind words, smile. Anything to make your flying experience, and that of those around you, a bit easier. Times have changed and they will likely stay changed. Accept it, adjust to it.