What's the takeaway from Sept. 11?

Over the past decade, the attacks have inspired some lousy and very expensive decisions about travel

Published September 11, 2011 2:01PM (EDT)

In this Aug. 3, 2011 photo, airline passengers go through the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in Atlanta. The TSA was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser) (AP)
In this Aug. 3, 2011 photo, airline passengers go through the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in Atlanta. The TSA was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser) (AP)

I should say something about the Sept. 11 anniversary. This was something I was hoping to avoid, but I suppose it's necessary.

As most people do, I remember the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with an acute clarity: the subway ride out to Logan, and the inordinately large cockroach I saw crawling along the platform at Government Center station. My plane to Florida, taking off only seconds behind American's doomed Flight 11. The diversion to Charleston, S.C., where I joined a gasping throng of fellow strandees gathered around a TV in a terminal restaurant. And later, the long drive home in a rented car.

But I wish, as a country, that we were past this.

It's not the anniversary itself that irks me. The 10-year mark is -- or should be -- worthy of our solemn respects and a national timeout. But commemorating the attacks would feel a lot more meaningful if, in fact, we had ever stopped commemorating them. Our healing process has been never-ending -- occasionally introspective and edifying, but all too often maudlin and suffocating.

Maybe that's a terrible and insensitive thing to say, I don't know.

But the attacks were supposed to have made us a better and stronger country, not merely a more sentimental one whose most endearing qualities are a penchant for self-pity and a hunger for revenge. And about the worst thing we can do right now is focus too intensely on an event that, let's be honest now, not only killed 3,000 Americans, but that directly or indirectly inspired a pathology of disastrous and very expensive decisions.

Wait, where am I going with this? Well, my expertise, my columnly duty, is all things air travel. And among those lousy decisions, of course, was the dystopian nightmare/comedy known as the Transportation Security Administration. Any conversation as to how the world of air travel has been affected by the attacks of 2001 must begin and end with the TSA.

The tragic irony being that the success of the 2001 conspiracy had nothing to do with airport security in the first place. This was a failure of intelligence at the FBI and CIA levels, not at the concourse checkpoint. As I've pointed out many times in the past, the hijackers were not exploiting a weakness in airport security, but rather a weakness in our mind-set -- our presumptions, based on years of precedent, as to what a hijacking was, and how it would unfold. What weapons the men used was irrelevant. Ballpoint pens would have sufficed, for the strategy relied not on hardware, but on the element of surprise. So long as the hijackers didn't chicken out, their plan was all but guaranteed to succeed.

I will otherwise spare my regular readers any further rehashing as to what, since then, has made our airport security apparatus so farcical and ineffective. The topic has granted more than ample coverage in this column over the past eight years. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the points are neatly summarized here.

But what else? Setting aside the troubling legacy of TSA, how else has flying changed?

Granted, the airline industry is vastly different today than it was in 2001: We've seen four major carrier bankruptcies, the liquidation of several others, and two giant mergers. Tens of thousands of industry employees lost their jobs; the rest have suffered huge concessions in wages and benefits. Today the U.S. domestic market is all but dominated by low-cost carriers and/or regional planes operated on behalf of the majors by their various code-share affiliates. Regionals now account for an astonishing 50 percent of all domestic flights. Fares are cheaper than they were a decade ago, but service levels have fallen and delays are up.

That's a lot of change. Drawing a straight line to 9/11, however, isn't so easy. In 2001, the so-called legacy airlines already were creaking and groaning under mounting financial pressures; low-cost carriers, anchored by Southwest and a feisty New York upstart called JetBlue, had the legacies back on their heels; the regional sector was expanding rapidly.

The attacks were a powerful catalyst that thrust the industry into a down cycle the likes of which it had never seen. But it can easily be argued that these changes were coming anyway. They merely came faster.

In weathering this crazy storm, the industry was supposed to have learned something. It has certainly reinvented itself, but have the biggest players really worked out a plan for long-term survival? Are they any less vulnerable to the calamitous boom/bust cycles of years past? Have the variables of pricing and capacity been rationally balanced? Sure, flying is cheap, and, sure, it's remarkably safe. On the one hand we can hardly ask for more. But is the system healthy? How will it weather the next 9/11, the next fuel crisis, the next recession? And is it the system passengers deserve?

I'm not so sure.

Neither am I sure of what, as a nation, the big takeaway from 9/11 ought to be. One thing, certainly -- and this gets back to security, as it always does -- should be a heightened sense of vigilance. Not in the martial, "see something, say something" sense that security zealots love to force down our throats, but in the sense of the famous Wendell Phillips quote. Google it if you have to.

Try as we might, we can never fully protected ourselves from external threats -- not our airports, not our seaports, not our shopping malls, power plants, water supplies and so on. Pouring billions upon billions of dollars into the maw of the Security Industrial Complex, as I like to call it -- more cameras, fences, more weapons and high-tech surveillance -- does not necessarily make us safer. But it does put our liberties in peril, and it does make certain people, and certain industries, very, very wealthy. Follow the money, as they say. Airport security is a useful example of the greater legacy of 9/11: Its advertised effectiveness is minimal, yet it carries on with a huge budget and a lack of accountability. The public, meanwhile, more or less accepts this. As it did the Iraq war, et al.

As I see it, the real danger to the country isn't coming from the caves of Central Asia, but from our own stout refusal to act rationally, together with a willingness to accept almost anything in the name of security.

That's a terrible way to end a commemorative 9/11 piece, but it's also an unfortunate course for a country like ours to take. Perhaps a splash of cold water, not another candlelight vigil, is really what we need. In the long run, a healthier, more dignified democracy is about the best tribute we could offer to those who perished 10 years ago.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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