ATW Editor's Blog

Forward From 15: We’ve gained more than we lost

by Karen Walker
Sep 08, 2016

With each 9/11 anniversary, we rightly and naturally reflect on loss. First and foremost, of course, the incomprehensible loss of lives and, for the victim’s family and friends, the life they knew before that awful September day.

We also think of our industry – the global commercial air transport industry – in terms of loss. For American and United, the unbearable loss of colleagues doing their duty. For airline and airport employees everywhere, a changed, more stressful work environment that requires new levels of vigilance, and which is still targeted by those who mean harm.

And we think of our personal losses. Minor in comparison, but frustrating. We travelers, on business or pleasure, are constantly reminded of what we can’t do since Sept. 11, 2001. Can’t take our latte, bottle of water or nail scissors through security; can’t wave goodbye or greet our loved ones at the gate; can’t make jokes in the security queue; can’t keep our shoes on; can’t visit the cockpit or stand near the fore lavatory; can’t be sure of the right amount of time to allow to reach the gate. As I say, minor niggles and we patiently accept them in return for strengthened security. But they add to the sense that we’ve lost something in the magic of travel. The destination may still be worth it, but it’s heads-down ‘till you get there.

But in 15 years, we’ve also made many gains that profoundly improve the air transport and travel experience. While these are not all directly related to the after effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they are capabilities and services that we either did not have back in 2001, or were far more limited than in 2016.

Certainly, the industry has not stood still. And what we have now is better. Start with new aircraft types that we can now fly on, like the Airbus A380, A350 and A320neo, the Boeing 787, and the Bombardier CSeries. None was in operation in 2001. All bring new levels of efficiency, comfort, quietness, space and stability. More are coming, including the Boeing 737MAX and 777X. They (and their new engines) give airlines better operational economics and passengers more comfort options such as mood lighting, bigger bins, larger windows, cleaner onboard air, and better pressurization.

And while passengers may rue the loss of leg room inches in the economy cabin, the lie-flat business seat was a rarity in 2001 that has become pretty much an industry standard in 2016. There are even lie-flat seat options on some US transcontinental carriers, such as JetBlue Airways’ Mint service.

Airlines and airports haven’t stood still either. In many cases, especially at US airports, the post 9/11 security restrictions on liquids and gels prompted a rethink of airside concessions. There are far more purchase options on the other side of the security gate for food, beverages, take-onboard meals and, yes, shampoo, nail scissors and all those other things you had to leave behind in the TSA trash can.

Far more useful, however, are the self-serve check in kiosks, drop off for self-tagged bags, and many more automated systems at airports. Also, there is ubiquitous Wifi at airports and Wifi is more common on aircraft (for a fee, but also far more reliable than in 2001). For that matter, we didn’t have smartphones or the iPad in 2001 – electronic tablets are not only the essential traveler’s tool, they are used in the cockpit, replacing paper flight bags, and increasingly in the cabin. Apps, Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist either. Love them or hate them, they are used by airlines, airports and air transport regulatory authorities everywhere to communicate with the passenger and inform them; and that’s a two-way communications street. Tablets, e-books and iPods are also more convenient, customized ways to entertain yourself than the vanilla, “family-friendly comedy” movie that used to play on the drop down screen several yards away from your seat, invariably ending long before the flight. Who misses that?

E-ticketing was introduced in 1997, but not mandated by IATA until 2008 and was far less common in 2001. Paper tickets are losses that are a gain; it’s almost impossible to lose your e-ticket. .

Biometrics was unknown in commercial air travel in 2001. It’s still a developing technology, but gaining traction and will eventually send paper passports the same way of paper tickets. Already, with voluntary pre-screened processes like the US Global Entry System, you can bypass the immigration queues and quickly re-enter your country with just a passport and fingerprint scan at a kiosk.

The three major global alliances have changed significantly in 15 years, and for the better. Oneworld and SkyTeam existed in 2001 but were fledglings, with Star still the dominant alliance. The three have far more member airlines today and are much better organized. The promise of seamless travel is much closer to reality, with tier status recognized across airlines within an alliance and benefits more easily extended. There are alliance round-the-world tickets; common lounges and check-in kiosks; prominent alliance signage.

Some travelers, particularly in the US, may feel they have “lost” something of the air travel experience with free meals, blankets and pillows mostly gone and ancillary fees for everything from a checked bag to an aisle seat or early boarding. But looked another way, there’s far more choice in 2015 than 15 years ago. The incentive to take onboard or select and buy a meal you might actually enjoy rather than swallow rubber chicken and soggy green beans because they’re “free”. For the best example of this, look at the Aer Lingus onboard menu. Everything is for a fee, but there are pages of choice, from full English breakfast to scones with cream and jam. You have a better chance, albeit for a fee, of securing a seat with more legroom or elbow room regardless of your loyalty program status. You can bring your own dedicated pillow or blanket with a known sanitary history.

And on the ultimate gain side, there are far more global city pairs today, linking communities and people like never before, and more frequencies between key hubs. Ultra-low cost carriers have opened up the air travel to a market that could not afford to fly pre-2001. And average fares, adjusted for inflation, are lower, a trend that has continued in modern air travel. On a global basis, for example, fares in 2015 were down a staggering 57% compared to 1995, after adjusting for inflation and excluding surcharges and taxes.

We lost a lot on Sept. 11, 2001. But not our desire to travel and connect. Flying is still the safest way to get there. Fifteen years on, it’s also the best.

Karen Walker


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