Fast Company road warrior Heath Row embarked on his third CoF Roadshow exactly one week after four terrorist hijackings rocked the world off its axis. Traveling 2,609 miles from Providence, Rhode Island to Vancouver, Canada, Heath passed through three time zones, three airports, and one national border just as U.S. airports were unveiling their strictest security controls ever.
What’s it like up there, where legroom and stale peanuts used to be our biggest concerns? How are travelers navigating the new airport restrictions? Do you really need to check in two hours early? Heath is the man to ask.
Here, he and other Fast Company road warriors weigh in on contraband carry-ons, flight alternatives, and the new realities of airline travel. We invite you to read these reports from the road and to add your own observations and opinions to Sound Off below.
September 18, 2001
I rose early, caught a 6:15 AM airport shuttle bus with a Canadian airline crew, and checked in with a confirmed seat on my flight to Chicago. The United Airlines representative, wearing a black-ribbon pin, was surprised by how many of my flights had been canceled and rescheduled: “You must really want to get home,” he said.
Getting through security was surprisingly easy; they’re checking photo IDs and boarding passes, but I didn’t have to turn on any of my electronic gear — my PowerBook, my two cameras, or my cell phone. And the airline personnel were surprisingly energetic, friendly, and relaxed, either because passenger counts are down and work is easy or because people are trying to shine in the face of the impending airline layoffs — reported in the Providence Journal this morning to be upward of 100,000 people.
My guess is, it’s because passenger counts are down. The Providence airport was oddly quiet on what I expected to be a hectic morning. Waiting in the gate area for my flight reading this week’s issues of Newsweek, Time, and US News & World Report, all with extensive coverage of the tragedies, I took time to look around — and to listen in on people’s conversations. One woman had been trying to return home to Moline, Illinois since late last week. A man told his daughter that “now’s the safest time to fly.” And the airport’s intercom system frequently chirped its warnings not to leave bags unattended. Police officers hovered near security checks and roamed the concourse.
As our boarding time neared, I was struck by the irony that our boarding time — 8:45 AM — coincided almost exactly with the time at which American Airlines flight 11 hit the World Trade Center just one week earlier.
I am on a Continental flight from SFO to Newark. I look around me. No one is flying. There were supposed to be 23 passengers on this plane. We ended up with 10. I asked for and got an upgrade into first class for no good reason. Just before takeoff, one of the flight attendants asked if I minded if the entire planeload of passengers, such as they were, moved up to first class. Sure, I said. So 10 people are sitting with me in the 12 seats up front. Coach is utterly empty.
I’ve flown three times since September 11. Here are a few words of advice as you board planes.
You must have a boarding pass. Counter to the information on many airline Web sites and the advice coming from some travel agents, that is the rule according to the folks checking IDs and scanning bags at the airport X-ray machines. Several airline sites say that passengers can proceed to the gate if they have an e-ticket receipt. Save yourself some aggravation, and go to the reservations counter to get a boarding pass before even attempting to pass through the X-ray machine.
Every airport is different. In San Francisco, they checked my carry-on luggage for a pair of nail scissors, which I was allowed to keep. In San Diego, they confiscated the scissors. In Detroit, they “wanded” me with an electronic metal reader and then patted me down. In San Francisco, I walked right through. The point is: Sometimes you’ll have an hour and a half to spend thumbing through magazines, and other times you’ll still be standing in line at the X-ray machine behind travelers with too much change in their pockets while final boarding begins on your flight. Don’t try to second-guess what will happen at the airport; give yourself that extra hour to get on a plane.
Keep your cool. Smile. When I remember these words, I seem to sail through lines and security checkpoints. There is absolutely no use getting frustrated or angry at reservation clerks, flight attendants, or X-ray attendants. We’re all in this together. The folks at the airports are just trying to do their jobs and keep us safe. Give ’em a break.
I found nirvana in the Quiet Car on Amtrak’s Acela train from Boston to New York. No cell phones, no cell-phone conversations, no annoying cell-phone people. And no one telling you to return your tray table to an upright position. Pure bliss.
What does the airline industry have to show for itself in the past 25 years? Other than making air travel safer (and it’s safer than ever, especially with all of the armed guards stationed around airports right now), the frequent-flier mile is about the only decent innovation of the past quarter decade.
So despite tragic motivations, it was great to see American Airlines get rid of meals on all but its longest domestic flights last week. Can a reduction in service really be an innovation? In this case, yes, for it’s something that should have happened a long time ago. Airplane food is lousy — not because the airlines’ caterers are bad, but because it’s impossible to make anything taste good given the logistical hurdles that the cooks and airlines face. The carts require people who are paid to push them, so most airlines staff their planes with more than the minimum number of flight attendants required to meet safety standards.
At the same time, the food at the airport itself is getting much better. San Francisco and Austin terminals house local restaurants serving sushi and barbecue and homemade ice cream. And when Todd English, one of the most famous chefs in the Northeast, opened a take-out stand in LaGuardia, he even designed his pizza slices and their boxes to fit neatly on seat-back tray tables. Travelers have more appetizing options than ever.
It seems like an obvious time for carriers to eliminate meals. By doing so, they can save seven or eight bucks per passenger per flight — which adds up quickly, even with all of the empty seats right now. In the meantime, please pick up your pizza boxes. The flight attendants have enough to worry about right now.