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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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

Amtrak reported that October 2001 ridership on its high-speed Acela Express and Metroliner increased 43 percent over ridership in October 2000. November's Acela-Metroliner numbers increased 40 percent, and December's were up 30 percent.

Many families are also taking driving vacations. This summer, the American Automobile Association reported a 53 percent increase in requests for maps and travel books, said Myra Wieman, public affairs manager for AAA's mid-Atlantic region.

Wieman was once famous in her office for arriving at her gate just 15 minutes before her flight took off, with all necessities stuffed into a carry-on bag.

"Before Sept. 11, there were a lot of people who did that," Wieman said of her airport dash. "Now I think it would be hard to find anyone who did that intentionally."

Today, she arrives much earlier and reads the Web sites of airports she is flying to and from. She advises other travelers to do the same.

In a survey of his members, Air Travelers Association President David S. Stempler found that East Coast business travelers were more likely to drive instead of fly if they were going about 200 miles. Midwesterners were willing to drive 300 miles, and West Coast travelers 400 miles.

"Their biggest concern," he said, "is that they don't know whether it will take them 10 minutes or an hour and 10 minutes to get through security."

'Absolute last resort'

Dallas health care consultant Stephen W. Earnhart will drive even farther to avoid the lines.

Before Sept. 11, he flew four or five times a week, sometimes starting in Alaska and ending in Virginia. Now, it's just three times a month. When he does fly, he takes a bargain carrier such as Southwest. If the trip is less than 600 miles, he and his 16 employees drive and try to pack a few destinations into one trip.

"Right now," he said, "airlines are an absolute last resort."

Airlines are desperately trying to survive by winning back travelers like Earnhart.

Southwest Airlines, considered a bargain leader, reduced its maximum fare from $399 to $299 recently. The airline has expanded since the attacks, but spokeswoman Brandy King said traffic is down slightly because of fewer business travelers.

'Not making any money'

"All the airlines are in the same fix right now," said United Airlines pilot Joe Watson, who regularly flies from Chicago to Hong Kong and Tokyo. "We're not getting the high-paying business travelers like we used to. The planes are full, but the airlines are not making any money."

Watson, a pilot for 25 years, said he and his co-workers worry about the cuts United must make to survive. But he is not worried about terrorism in the skies - especially because passengers are scrutinizing each other.

Thanks in part to Southwest and AirTran Airways, BWI's passenger traffic recovered more quickly than did many other airports after Sept. 11. But so many people packed the airport that lines snaked around concourses for what looked like miles. The airport brought in entertainers and coffee carts, but passengers remained frustrated.

By spring, traffic improved when the airport nearly doubled its checkpoints from 11 before the attacks to 21.

BWI's evolution

The big changes began in January, when Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta chose BWI as the model site for the new Transportation Security Administration. Consultants from Disney and Intel helped reconfigure a checkpoint so passengers now line up like tourists waiting for a ride at a theme park.

BWI's layout evolved with the security measures. Two months after the attacks, airport workers were reinforcing the floors to accommodate the 7,000-pound, Dodge Durango-sized explosive detection machines that now screen passengers' checked luggage - another federal mandate.

In spring, BWI became the first airport in the nation with a federalized security force. Its screeners travel around the country to train others.

But BWI hasn't emerged unscathed.

US Airways, which had 149 daily departures out of BWI before Sept. 11, now has 45. Southwest, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines picked up some of those flights, and four new airlines moved in.

Money at US Airways was so tight after Sept. 11 that the airline stopped providing in-flight entertainment, meals, pillows and blankets, said airline spokesman David Castelveter. But it soon restored much of it. Castelveter said the cuts were unpopular, but "when you're in the financial situation we were in, losing millions every day, every penny is important."

Air travel cutbacks have had ripples in the tourism world, too. Bookings are down at both Walt Disney resorts in California and Florida, said spokeswoman Michelle Nachum. She says the main problem is the scarcity of international visitors, who make up 20 percent of attendance at the Florida park and 15 percent at the California park.

Some people, though, are deciding to fly again - despite their nerves.

Reluctance, refusal

Sarah Nosek of suburban Chicago didn't want to drive with her two small children to visit her sister in Gaithersburg. She didn't want to fly, either. But after landing at BWI last month, she pronounced her first flight after the September attacks a success.

"It was fine. It was beautiful," she said.

AAA travel counselor Bob Savage believes the increase in traveling by car isn't necessarily linked to a reluctance to fly. Many customers, like Peggy and Ray Shetz of Cockeysville, are taking trips to nearby places.

"Even the people who did cross-country trips, I think they would have done those driving regardless," Savage said.

Mary Levin, owner of Baltimore's Royal Travel Planners on Charles Street, said air travel bookings have picked up since January to all overseas destinations except the Middle East.

"People are cruising, they're going to the islands, they're doing everything," she said.

But Levin doubts she could persuade her friend Harriet Schulman to board a plane now.

Born in the Ukraine, Schulman spent her childhood running from the Nazis. The attacks shattered the security she thought she had in America. Getting on a plane, she fears, will only increase her anxiety.

"Maybe in time, if I live long enough," the 64-year-old Schulman said. "Right now, I just don't feel any better about it."

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