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What It's Really Like To Fly Right Now

(November 1, 2001)

What can you expect when you check in for your next flight? Long lines…really long lines. I found this out the hard way when I flew from Pittsburgh to Washington DC's National Airport in mid-October.

Once Upon a Line

I took a late afternoon flight. Big mistake. Although I arrived at the airport exactly two-and-a-half hours before departure, the lines were massive and snaked through the majority of the ticketing section. The whole scene was worse than I anticipated. As the line moved—ever so slowly—I studied my fellow line captives. Many were in zombie-like states with glossy-eyed stares, while some read books or chatted on cell phones.

It took an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the counter when I showed my ID and finally took possession of the all-powerful boarding pass. The ticketing agents handled everything efficiently, and I became euphoric, thinking I'd have time to stop for a latte before the flight.

Terminal Mess

My elation quickly turned into despair as I faced another long line. What a difference an hour makes. The security screening line was relatively short when I first entered the terminal, but it has since grown into a nightmarish sea of congestion. I had to walk five minutes just to reach the end of the line.

It's safe to assume that flights were missed because of this line. I thought I'd miss mine, and began questioning the wisdom of flying right now. Is it worth the trouble? Technically, I could have driven to Washington DC in a little over four hours.

Forty-five minutes later, I finally reached security screening. There I noticed armed National Guard troops. In a way, their presence made me feel safer. On the other hand, I found it to be a sad reminder of the freedoms travelers have lost. An agent scrutinized my boarding pass and ID and them told me to step in another line for luggage screening. Panic was beginning to set in as I only had twenty minutes to catch my plane.

There were signs everywhere telling people to remove loose change, keys, glasses, and laptops from cases, and then place them in plastic containers. Of course, the guy in front of me didn't empty all the change out of his pockets, and the metal detector kept beeping. I began to lose it and started laughing—sometimes you just have to laugh these days or you'll go nuts. Thankfully, I didn't set off anything or get my bags torn apart. I jumped on the train to the airside terminal and glanced down at my watch. I had only fifteen minutes.

Terminal Rage

After reaching the concourse, I rushed to reach the gate. I was sweating, my feet were killing me, and I was even madder because I passed Seattle's Best Coffee where I had hoped to sip a latte before the flight.

I reached gate A5 eight minutes before departure, but had to wait in line for my seat assignment. I showed my tickets and ID to the agent, and then placed my ID back in my purse so I wouldn't loose it. Right before boarding, I handed my boarding pass to the agent and he again asked for my ID, which I struggled to retrieve from the deep abyss of my purse. The agent got testy and said, "Ma'am, we are in a hurry." I barked back, "I am doing the best I can," and gave him a look that reflects the mood of someone who has had it with standing in lines and flashing IDs for over two hours. Forget about road rage or sky rage, I was close to terminal rage. Finally, I fished out the ID and proceeded down the Jetway. I collapsed in my seat while glancing at my watch: Four minutes to spare.

Tense Times

If there is one word to describe flying right now it's "tense." There's tension in the lines, tension at security screening, and tension at the gates…it is everywhere. Talk to anyone who has flown since September 11 and you'll probably hear the word "hell" in the conversation. Flying used to be fun for people like me, but not now when the overall journey consumes three hours or more before the flight even takes off. If the process doesn't become more efficient, people will avoid airports like the plague…rightfully so. The airlines should be afraid, very afraid.

The New Rules

If you are planning on flying, here are some golden rules to follow:

E-tickets: Check with your airline for its e-ticket policies. Most major airlines are requiring passengers to carry the paper receipt for their e-tickets, if not an actual paper version of the ticket. Don't wait until the last minute to turn your e-ticket into paper and get caught waiting in line at the airport ticket counter.

Check-in Times: Allow at least two full hours to check-in for domestic flights and two and a half hours for international flights. Two- and three-hour waits are common, particularly at the busy mid-morning and mid-afternoon times.

Checking Baggage: Check your luggage at the airport ticket counter. Some airports have resumed curbside check-in. Many airlines recommend that passengers check all their bags (including carry-ons) to avoid longer lines.

Carry-on Luggage: Minimize your carry-on luggage as much as possible. You are limited to one carry-on bag, plus a purse, computer, briefcase, etc. But be prepared to undergo random searches and expanded x-ray/metal detector scans—the more stuff you have, the longer it will take.

Identification (ID): Bring a valid state-issued license, identification card, or passport. Remember to keep it within reach at all times—you'll be asked to show it a lot.


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