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On 11 September 2002, I flew to Las Vegas for the day.
It was a strange and frightening trip, but not for the reasons you might think.
Las Vegas seemed a natural destination for the day: As a city economically dependent on tourists who arrive by air, it was among the places most affected by the aftermath of September 11th 2001.
Measured in dollar terms, rather than lives, the damage from September 11th was greatest in Hawaii. Las Vegas was almost as hard hit at first, but recovered more quickly. Tourists from Asia, Japan in particular, were afraid to come to the USA after 11 September 2001. If it seems silly to be afraid to take a vacation in Hawaii or Las Vegas because of events in New York and Washington, thousands of miles away, then consider how many Americans were afraid to take vacations in Europe during the Gulf War 1990-1991 because of events in Iraq and Kuwait, thousands of miles away.
The price was right: National Airlines, one of two airlines with hubs in Las Vegas, offered all seats on all its flights between Las Vegas and anywhere in the USA on September 11th for a dollar each way. And the tickets cost just over $20 round trip, once all the taxes were included. But compared to regular fares, that's still next to nothing.
Like most smaller airlines, National Airlines has more space between seats and better service than the "major" airlines - even when all the seats are full, which they weren't that day. It was well worth the fare for a perfect day of flightseeing from 35,000 feet, even if I had nothing to do in Las Vegas and didn't win back my airfare at the slot machines.
"I believe that anyone who flies in an airplane and doesn't spend most of his time looking out the window wastes his money," Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert about flying over the western states. I didn't waste my money: I choose a window seat with a million-dollar view of the icons of California and the West: San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the coast hills, the Central Valley, Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley, the Nevada desert, Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam, and finally the must-be-seen-to-be-believed panorama of the Las Vegas strip.
Of course, it was the safest day of the year to travel, with the fewest delays: Everyone was hyper-alert and on their best behavior. And the extra inspectors called out for the day kept the check-in and security clearance lines shorter than I've seen at any time, anywhere, in the last year.
So what was so scary? There were unsold tickets. They couldn't give them away for a dollar.
I'm not just talking about no-shows. Of course for a dollar, or even 20, some people would buy tickets on spec, and not show up. No, when I checked the morning of September 11th, there were still tickets available for $1 each way on almost every National Airlines flight that day, even from the East Coast.
Sure, some people wouldn't want to fly on September 11th. That's understandable. "There are some people out there who aren't going to fly today no matter what. You could've paid `em and they wouldn't fly," said National Airlines spokesperson Dik Shimizu. But National Airlines isn't a big airline - they fly just under 13,000 seats a day. 6,500 round trips. Out of 280 million people in the USA, they couldn't find 6,500 gamblers willing to take them up on an offer to go to Las Vegas for the day for $20 each round-trip.
The other airline that gave away tickets for all its flights on September 11th is Spirit Airlines, whose hub is in Detroit. I flew to Detroit for the day, once, on a college lark (for 59 cents each way - including all the taxes, which back then were still included in the fare - on the inaugural weekend of Midway Airlines service from Chicago in 1979). But it's not a typical day-trip destination, and I'd understand if they had trouble filling their free flights for a day in Detroit. But no, this was Las Vegas, one of the county's pre-eminent short-stay junket destinations.
So what does that say about the other 99.98% of the population of the USA?
It says that they - we - are still profoundly terrorized and afraid to fly. Profoundly traumatized. Almost all of us. And we still haven't dealt with that fear or that trauma about travel.
Neither have the airlines or the travel industry.
Throughout the day on September 11th, airline and airport staff kept doing double-takes as they realized that National hadn't sold out their $1 flights.
"Twenty bucks round trip? I don't think they publicized it well," said one of the baggage inspectors.
"Where are the rest of the passengers? Isn't this flight full?" said one of the airline ground staff after everyone had disembarked from a half-empty flight.
"Unsold tickets? No. That's not right." said a flight attendant.
After I got back to San Francisco, just before 5:00 p.m. that day, I contacted Mr. Shimizu, National Airlines' director of corporate communications. At first, he assured me that they had sold every coach seat to and from San Francisco, and most of their other destinations, within hours of when the sale began. He wasn't lying - he just took it so much for granted that he never checked. Only after I insisted that he look in their reservation system, and he found seats still for sale on almost all their remaining flights that night, did he believe me.
"That's bizarre. That's a surprise. We certainly expected we would sell all our seats."
I don't mean to belittle the fear and trauma that kept people away from free flights on September 11th. Both are real, understandable, and instinctive responses to what we've experienced.
What's important, though, is that we distinguish the scary from the truly dangerous, as I've been saying for years.
Unfortunately, because we haven't been conscious of the distinction between fear and danger, a lot of things have been done in the last year to make us *feel* safer while travelling that:
You don't have to be a psychologist to realize that buying guns, hiring cops, and "profiling" travellers are ineffective forms of therapy. Symptoms of untreated trauma, yes. Therapy, no.
For example, the US government has spent some $10 billion on airport and airline security and a whole new federal police agency, the Transportation Security Administration. But the TSA has no jurisdiction or budget for drunk driving or road transportation, which killed ten times as many people last year as did the attacks last September 11th.
In the last year, I've been in Northern Ireland - traumatized for decades by bombs and terrorism - and the area around "ground zero" in New York. I've been talking with people in Oklahoma City, where I'll be next week, which is still traumatized from the Patriots' Day, 1995, bombing of the federal building by American "patriots". What I see all around me now, throughout the USA, are those same symptoms of untreated fear and post-traumatic stress.
"Isn't that obvious?, asked one of my therapist friends. Perhaps it is, but though our media are still saturated with 9/11 coverage, we aren't talking about the national crisis of fear and untreated psychological trauma. And we certainly aren't doing anything about it as a society. If we continue to pretend that we have an "air transportation security crisis" rather than a psychological crisis of a society acting out its untreated fear and trauma, we aren't going to make any progress toward a safer world - safer for ourselves or for those whom our instincts, not our reason, tell us to fear - or toward less frightening travel.
Or towards a world where an airline could give their tickets away for a dollar, and find a few thousand people, out of hundreds of millions, to take them up on their offer.
If you're still afraid, if you're still feeling shell-shocked, you're not alone. Acknowledge your feelings. They may not be rational, but they are real and they are legitimate. Talk about them. Get treatment. Don't let your fear and trauma dominate your life, your decisions, or your travels.
[National Airlines stopped flying in November 2001, and has been liquidated.]
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