Up, Up and Away: A Well-Rested Road Warrior On Air Travel3:17 PM EST Tue. Oct. 09, 2001
The country is at war and I am on a Delta jet bound for Florida. How very odd.
Of all the places to be visiting, I am destined for Disney World where on my agenda is a town hall-type meeting with the chairmen of Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, who are desperately trying to persuade the business community theirs is a marriage of more than just convenience.
This is the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks on America that I have taken my usual place in the coach seat of a domestic airline carrier. So despite the gravity of this meeting, I certainly had my reservations about attending and said yes only after a great deal of thought and hesitation. After all, at some point those of us whose unwritten job description includes travel would eventually have to get back on an airplane. Perhaps this is just the reason I needed to resume my place in the business world. Maybe, this is what New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani and President George W. Bush mean by life returning to normal.
So if this trip represents a return to normalcy, let me clue you in that things will never be the same. And I hope that some of the things I witnessed during my flight from LaGuardia airport in New York to Orlando, Fla. will change.
I was all set to depart my home on Sunday, Oct. 7 at around 1 p.m. EST. My strategy was simple: pack light, exclude any items that could cast suspicion at the check-in counter and be prepared for just about anything. I charged up an extra cell phone battery, unloaded a pile of papers that had been weighing down my briefcase for several months and headed for the door. (For those of you who have considered traveling or have done so, I am leaving out the spousal debate that preceded my trip. So please allot more time for that.)
There was only one small glitch as I waited for the car service to pick me up. The president was about to address the nation to disclose that our initial attack on Afghanistan had begun. Late in the evening in Jalabad, cruise missiles, bombs and humanitarian aid packages were raining down on this country. The thought of getting on a plane that afternoon seemed like the last thing on earth to do. So my departure was postponed until I could get a better handle on America's war on terrorism. But in an odd way, despite the risks--and no one can deny there are risks--I was determined to start flying again.
The next day I departed for the airport following the advice of just about every newscaster who has reported on air travel since the Sept. 11 attack. For a 6:50 p.m. flight, I left my home at a few minutes to 3 p.m. and within one hour was sitting at my assigned gate. Prepared for the tightest security known to mankind and a thorough inspection of every orifice of my body, I breezed through the entire check-in process with one hitch. I forgot to remove my notebook computer from my briefcase and had to do so and place it on the baggage scanning conveyor belt a second time.
One observation I made was there is a clear lack of refuse containers in and around the front terminal area. Outside there are only cigarette disposal receptacles but any large trash cans have been removed so I had to carry a soggy brown bag with a half eaten apple for a considerable period.
When I arrived there were about 50 people waiting on line at the main Delta ticket counter. I flashed my passport and a copy of my itinerary, was handed a ticket and off I went. There were no restrictions on my carry-on bags. I did not have to check my roll-a-board luggage. The x-ray machine operator and security guards never asked me to open my luggage despite the fact that inside was a digital tape recorder, microphone and well-stocked toilet kit. For a measure of good luck I had my rosary beads and my father's dog tags from the Korean War. I thought for sure someone at the security check-in might find the dog tags a bit odd, but no one did. And so with the greatest of ease and speed I glided through and came face to face with a National Guardsman toting a well-polished M-16 rifle flanked by several U.S. Marshalls. Nothing like a little wake-up call. But to be honest, I think the Guardsman was somewhat distracted by a beautiful blonde woman in front of me, but I suppose we are all human.
The flights that I witnessed, some heading to Detroit, others to different parts of Florida were all fairly empty. The terminal area was bustling but compared to my previous experiences prior to Sept. 11, it was considerably empty and extremely somber. Most of the airport shops were deeply discounting merchandise including my favorite--the PGA golf shop. Hoping to score a bargain, I scoured the store but found nothing I wanted to purchase.
Wandering around the terminal I ran into a computer industry veteran who was resuming business travel. "You back up, too?" he said. While both of us were growing more comfortable with the prospect of increased business travel despite America's retaliation, an upcoming trip overseas was causing him some justifiable anxiety. Opting for honesty vs. words of comfort, I said, "Domestic travel doesn't concern me as much as the international travel does." I could read the trepidation on his countenance and we parted ways.
With about an hour to go something rather unnerving occurred. As most of us waited for the flight, we were glued to the CNN monitor tracking the latest air strikes inside Afghanistan. Suddenly, afternoon anchor Wolf Blitzer interrupted the broadcast to interview a correspondent who had news of a jet being escorted to Chicago's O'Hare airport by two F-16 jet fighters. As the correspondent launched into his story, the monitor, and those surrounding it, suddenly went dead. No one, except for me, reacted with any sense of alarm. Next up was a story on a second case of anthrax poisoning. Great. Just great. And where was this anthrax outbreak occurring? Exactly where I was heading.
I phoned the VARBusiness newsroom to find out if anyone had seen or heard the story. Reporters were scanning the Internet sites of the major news organizations but no one could turn up much on the story. Just what the hell was going on here? Could the airport have cut the feed so as not to alarm outgoing passengers? While those thoughts crossed my mind, the woman next to me kept routinely speaking into her cell phone headset. The man across the aisle sipped his Starbucks coffee, his back turned to the monitor. I asked one of the U.S. Marshalls if he had heard about the event. "You got me," he said.
I was overwhelmed by a sense that nothing had really changed since Sept. 11.
Finally, one of VARBusiness' reporters called to say that a mentally disturbed man had indeed stormed the cockpit of Los Angeles-to-Chicago-bound jet. Passengers subdued the man, and the pilot had radioed for emergency assistance.
"Hey, have a great flight," my colleague said, as I stepped onto the retractable Jetway that leads to the airplane door.
If you think this is odd, it's OK with me, but right now I am staring at a fire extinguisher. In my mind I am figuring out how to unclip the harness, pull the pin and aim this device right between the eyes of some imaginable crazy man who just happens to get out of line on Flight 993.