Back in the air, again?09-23-2001
This has been the second-strangest week for American travelers. As the nation's airlines gradually resumed their daily flight schedules, passengers began trickling back to airports, anxious to discover how the new security procedures will affect their coming and going, as well as their confidence in the system.
For the most part, the operational problems were minor. By midweek, US Airways reported its system was running smoothly, with more than 99 percent of its scheduled flights taking off and 90 percent of those arriving on time. Except for flights to Reagan National Airport in Washington, which remains closed, most departures were operating normally, even those headed to London and Paris, which have actually been taking off a few minutes early.
|Official government Web sites
Here's a list of reliable contacts for information regarding travel.
For airlines issues:
Federal Aviation Administration (regarding issues of safety): www.faa.gov
Department of Transportation (regarding issues of service): www.dot.gov/airconsumer
or call 202-366-2220 (complaint hot line).
For travel issues:
U.S. State Department (for foreign travel requirements and conditions): www.travel.state.gov.
For a different point of view, you might also try similar sites from other governments.
Other useful resources:
American Society of Travel Agents: www.astanet.com
Visitor and Convention Bureaus Worldwide: www.officialtravelinfo.com.
Two weeks ago, those results would have looked phenomenally good.
And as I discovered on three visits to Pittsburgh International Airport last week, passengers who showed up for their scheduled flights encountered few problems or excessive delays to keep them from parking, clearing security or getting to their departure gates.
Several passengers with whom I spoke reported they had planes largely to themselves, as well as the complete attention of cabin staff.
This is flying as it should be.
Unfortunately, the sublime situation won't last.
As the flow of passengers begins to approach more normal levels, the less efficient aspects of the security regulations will certainly clog up airport systems not intended for these traffic patterns. Don't forget things didn't always flow that smoothly before Sept. 11.
And if the flow of passengers does not increase, quite simply, there won't be as many flights or, perhaps, as many airlines, as evidenced by the airline cutbacks announced last week.
Undoubtedly, the security procedures will be adjusted somewhat.
To relieve growing traffic congestion, airport authorities have already altered the announced routine for those dropping off passengers.
As of Friday afternoon, the primary bottleneck in the flow of departing passengers was in the US Airways ticketing concourse, where long lines of travelers were waiting to get their flight documents or check their luggage. In contrast, there were no lines at service desks of the other carriers.
And some other change will be necessary in the placement of the security points, or merchants in the airside terminal will find business very bleak.
For readers who are not familiar with the new security procedures, here's what you need to know to expedite your airport experience.
First, before you leave for the airport, check the status of your flight, either by calling the airline or checking online with either the airline's own Web site or one of the various other Internet services that provide this information.
At the airport, the first thing you'll notice is that both of the usual pickup and drop-off points are closed.
Drivers dropping passengers off are now being directed to the short-term garage, while those who are meeting incoming passengers are sent into the long-term lot.
Both groups are directed onto the moving walkway that leads to the middle level of the landside terminal. Porters and staff are available for those who need assistance.
This regimen means that all drivers now have to get a parking lot entrance ticket. The normal parking rates for both lots still apply, $3 per hour for the short term lot and $1.50 per hour for the long term lot. Under these new regulations, however, there's no charge for the first half-hour in either lot. But you will be charged full rate for the first hour if you're not out of the lot within 30 minutes, as well as for every additional hour or part of an hour, to the daily maximum.
With the potential for long ticket lines, flight delays and baggage snafus, anyone trying to see someone off or wait for someone to arrive should not count on getting out of the lot within a half hour. We predict plenty of people will be hard-pressed to get in and out of the lots without paying something.
Incidentally, parking routines and rates in the extended term lot are unchanged ($5.75 per day), although until construction is completed on a new lot area, the number of available spaces may be limited.
If you're meeting a passenger, because non-ticketed passengers are not permitted to enter the security zone, the closest you'll be able to get is the area before the two trains on the center floor of the landside terminal. The other option is at the bottom of the escalators on the baggage concourse. Fortunately, both are near banks of arrival monitors, so at least you'll be able to keep track of the flights.
If you are a departing passenger and your trip involves a quick return, you can also leave your car in the short and long-term lots, but most travelers will find the extended-term lots more economical for longer journeys.
Another good option is to use one of the off-site parking lots. Their shuttle services use a ground level pickup point on the other side of the short-term garage from the terminal.
All passengers with luggage will find their journeys go easier if their suitcases have wheels.
All passengers who plan to check their bags will have to proceed to the ticketing areas on the departure (third) level and join the lines. Also, passengers who do not have either a valid ticket or an official itinerary showing that a ticket has been issued will have to join these lines as well, since they won't be allowed through the security checkpoint without one of the two documents. Each adult passenger will have to produce a photo ID issued by an official agency (most commonly a driver's license or passport) before entering the security area. And rather than a perfunctory glance, security personnel are really checking faces of both passengers and airline employees to make sure identities match.
To date, there have been no changes regarding the number and size of carry-on bags a passenger is permitted, except, of course, for particular items they are no longer permitted to have in their possession. In addition to knives of any kind, this also includes other sharp metal items such as nail files, scissors, straight razors, and knitting needles or anything else that could be used in any way to take over an airliner.
Still, to minimize hassles, try to reduce the number of things you carry on, and take some time before you go to the airport and go through your carry-on bag with this new procedure in mind.
Once passengers clear the security area, I'm told the rest of the departure procedure is much as before, except of course that the air side terminal no longer throngs with people who aren't actually flying anywhere, and at least last week, relatively few who are.
Questions about the efficiency, effectiveness and even the need for these procedures certainly will be reexamined as time passes and traffic builds. This part of September traditionally has been something of a slow season for airlines, and the events of last week certainly put a chill in travelers' intentions. Yet life will go on, and if recent national surveys are taken seriously, travelers, both business and leisure, will swallow their qualms and get on a plane again, assuming, of course, there are no new horrific headlines.
Most certainly, the airlines are hoping we will. To look on the bright side, perhaps they'll be more responsive to issues such as passengers' rights.
Of course, the recent announcement by several carriers that they plan to eliminate all in-flight meal service doesn't bode well in this regard.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the security procedures each airport across the country has been forced to jury-rig are likely to get gridlocked if and when the number of passengers reaches anything like what it was this time last year.
It seems clear that trips over the coming months will almost certainly be a trial for travelers. Yet, with planes flying half empty and most destinations hungry for visitors, those bold enough to venture out may find that the traveling is very good and as inexpensive as it's likely to be for a long time to come.