Ten years after 9-11, it's both harder and safer to fly. We have fewer airline and flight choices, we pay less for tickets but more in fees, and airport security can be really, really annoying. But airport security is a lot more professional than it used to be, and it's possible to surf the Internet on planes.
Is that a better experience? Before you anoint flying in 2011 the "worst year ever," remember the epic delays of the summer of 1999 when thousands of people were stuck in airports for days. And remember that back before 2001, airport security was widely considered a farce -- there just wasn't one big agency for people to target. Planes are crowded and security lines are miserable nowadays, but it isn't all bad.
Hate The TSA? You Have A Short Memory
Shortly after 9-11, there were three big changes in airline security: pilots got guns, cockpit doors were locked and reinforced, and the TSA replaced the private contractors running airport security around the country. A few years later, airports finally started screening all checked baggage for explosives (something which had been demanded since the Lockerbie bombing in 1988).
The TSA has come under a lot of criticism for being reactive, less efficient than foreign airport security systems, and for being "security theater." TSA officers occasionally do epically stupid things like patting down babies and disconnecting people's urostomy bags. But you have to remember how abysmally bad our airport security system was before the TSA came about.
In 2001, airport security paid less than the starting salaries at airport fast-food restaurants. In 1987, security screeners allowed 20% of dangerous objects to pass through checkpoints, and their performance had actually gotten worse by 2001, General Accounting Office official Gerald Dillingham said then.
Argenbright Security, which ran screening operations at 46 of the nation's busiest airports in 2001, had been convicted in federal court of hiring felons as security screeners; that year, the DOT found it still employed 37 people with outstanding arrest warrants. According to the TSA, federalizing airport security has lowered worker turnover from 125% per year to 6.4%.
While the TSA professionalized things, it also created somewhat-humiliating and time-consuming new procedures following the discovery of new threats. One failed shoe-bomber in late 2001 means that ten years later, we all still have to walk barefoot through security. A failed plot in 2006 involving liquid explosives now means we all have to throw out our water bottles, and has led to absurd, Talmudic discursions on what constitutes a "gel." And a failed "underwear bombing" plot in 2009 led to the new "nude-o-scan" machines, scanners which try to see under peoples' clothes.
Does any of this make us safer? Maybe, maybe not. It's definitely worth debating the line between security, comfort and privacy. But it's certainly not worse than the incompetent, corrupt airport security regime we had before the TSA came into being.
There are a few hopeful signs out there right now. The TSA seems to be coming to its senses on screening children, and is running a pilot program by which frequent travelers can zip more easily through security. The public definitely has to keep up the scrutiny and pressure, but that's another advantage of security being run by the government: the public can keep up pressure in a way it couldn't when security was run by anonymous, lowball-bidding rent-a-goons.
Fewer Choices, Higher Prices
September 11 led to a sharp, brief drop in air travel, followed by a federal bailout of the major airlines. But it had one much bigger long-term effect on airfares. The war in Iraq, among other things, led to dramatically higher fuel prices.
Major airlines were already merging before 9-11; American bought TWA in January 2001, shutting down TWA's independent operations by the end of that year. But since 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, oil prices have been much higher than previously; according to InflationData.com, oil prices averaged $65.94/barrel between 2004-2010, more than double 2001's price of $29.23.
So we've watched airlines merge and fees grow by leaps and bounds. US Airways and America West combined, then Delta and Northwest, United and Continental, and finally Southwest and AirTran. In 2008, many airlines started charging for all checked bags. Free food in coach class finally ended in 2010 when Continental, the last holdout, gave up. Now, even major airlines like American are starting to charge extra for aisle and window seats.
Airlines are slashing routes, too. While flights at some hub airports such as JFK and Atlanta are up over the past ten years, many mid-sized cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis have seen major declines in flights. Delta announced this year that it's cutting off service entirely to 24 smaller airports.
It's Not All Bad
We're paying more for fewer flights, but we're better entertained on them. Seatback in-flight entertainment systems with live TV, pioneered by JetBlue in 1999 and Delta Song in 2003, have become the norm on several airlines.
We're able to get online in the air now, too. The first true in-flight Internet service, Boeing's Connexion, lost all its U.S. airline support after the 9-11 attacks. But by 2008, Gogo Inflight began to appear on American and Delta planes; now AirTran, Continental, Alaska Airlines, and US Airways offer Gogo Internet, as well.
We're stuck on the ground for less time, thanks to new rules forbidding long tarmac delays that took effect in 2009. And if we're bumped, the mandatory compensation also went up in 2009.
That tarmac delay rule has changed how airlines cancel flights, as well. They now typically cancel flights further in advance rather than waiting for the last minute, as they did during the horrible summer of 1999 when thousands of people were trapped in airports and on sweltering planes.
That's controversial; some airline experts argue it means more flights get cancelled because of weather than there used to be. But I think it's been a good thing overall, as people aren't as frequently stuck in the airport or on planes waiting to take off.
We may be safer and better protected, but we aren't happier. The University of Michigan's American Consumer Satsifaction Index has been tracking Americans' opinions of airlines since 1995, and the industry as a whole has held steady in the mid-60s for the past ten years. Looking at individual airlines, the majors take big dips the year after they merge (because mergers are an awful mess) but the only standout is Southwest, whose score of 81 is much higher than other major airlines.
The culprit, I'd say, is the overwhelming sense of dehumanization that's come over air travel in the past ten years. Maybe the TSA is more efficient than the old security system, but it turns travelers into objects to be virtually and literally strip-searched. On board, planes are more crowded, seats are often smaller, flight attendants crabby, and little amenities have been taken away. And when we add up all the fees, we aren't paying less for this than we did in the late '90s, either.
We've spent the past ten years in airports staring back at 9-11, figuring out what we could do not to repeat it. How about we spend the next decade figuring out how to balance safety with making flying feel more human again.
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommers.com for ten years, winning awards from the Society of American Travel Writers foundation in 2007 and 2009 for his columns on this site. He is also the lead analyst for mobile at PCMAG.com. Segan lives in Jackson Heights, NY with his wife and daughter. Follow him on Twitter as @saschasegan.