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Should We Still Travel After September 11th?

by Edward Hasbrouck, author of “The Practical Nomad”

(first published as part of my column on The Amazing Race, 19 September 2001)

Should we still travel around the world, after what happened 11 September 2001?

Yes, absolutely. Now more than ever.

The sad events of September 11th carry, I think, a clear message that isolationism is impossible in an interconnected and interdependent world. Now more than ever, we need international awareness and understanding. We need to recognize our common humanity — and the suffering that unites us — with people everywhere of all races and cultures. And we need to understand the ways in which, for better or worse, our decisions affect others (and vice versa) around the world.

What greater victory could we hand the terrorists than to allow them to deprive us of our humanity, and to drive us to emulate them in isolating ourselves from world opinion?

But is it safe to travel? And to travel overseas?

Yes, absolutely. Now more than ever.

The September 11th attacks in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have, I presume, disabused us of any notion that staying home can keep us out of harm’s way. Bad things can happen anywhere. And travel abroad is no more risky than travel in the USA — in fact, statistically speaking, it’s often safer. Not that this means people from other countries should stay away from the USA! We have our share of crazies, as does every country, but you’ll find that the USA is still a wonderful place to visit, and on the whole most Americans remain (knock wood) very welcoming to foreigners.

Most of the risks of travel, as I’m constantly reminding other travellers (and reminding myself) are the commonplace risks of our everyday lives at home: car accidents, slips and falls, etc. Most of travel safety at home or abroad is simple common sense, like not forgetting to watch where we’re putting our feet when we’re distracted by looking at the sights and scenery.

Is it safe to fly?

Yes, absolutely. Now more than ever.

Per mile, air travel is a hundred to a thousand times safer than any alternative means of transportation. That safety will only be improved in the wake of the events of September 11th. Your time in the air is unquestionably the safest part of your trip.

One of the saddest consequences of the September 11th hijackings will be if they scare large numbers of people into driving rather than flying. The inevitable result would be an increase in the tens of thousands of people killed on the roads in the USA each year.

Fear of flying is real. It’s common. And it’s understandable. But — as I discuss in more detail in “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World” — fear is a very different issue from safety. If you’re afraid, deal with your fear, even if that isn’t easy. But don’t assume that airplanes are dangerous just because they are, for you, scary.

What about airport and airline security?

While airport and airline security in the USA has lagged behind the rest of the world, major — but relatively straightforward — changes have already been made since September 11th toward bringing it into conformity with international norms.

The difference between the USA and most other countries has been that in the USA only selected airline passengers and bags have been subjected to the sort of search that all passengers and bags receive in most countries.

Whether to implement universal or selective passenger and baggage inspection in the USA was a major issue for the Presidential “Commission on Aviation Safety and Security” chaired by Vice President Gore in 1996-1997.

Many experts recommended to the commission, and the commission itself included in some of its draft reports, universal security measures such as more careful inspection all checked and carry-on baggage, and positive matching of all checked baggage with passengers (so that, as is the case in most of the world, flights are not allowed to depart if baggage has been checked in by a passenger who has not actually boarded the plane).

But the airline industry strenuously lobbied against any measures that might inconvenience the majority of passengers. The final report of the Gore Commission, and measures adopted in its wake, emphasized profiling and selective scrutiny rather than universal inspections.

Starting in 1998, all airlines in the USA have been required to pass passenger data from their reservation systems through a government-run Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening (CAPPS) system each time a passenger checks in. If your reservation fits the CAPPS profile, you and your luggage are set aside for “secondary security screening” comparable to normal international screening. The airlines retain the reservation data (and, it appears, make it available to the government without requiring a warrant and without notifying travellers that the government is reviewing their travel histories), whether or not you fit the profile, creating a massive — and little known — set of dossiers on individual travellers. Those who don’t fit the profile, and their luggage, have otherwise been largely ignored.

The events of September 11th clearly demonstrate that this profiling doesn’t work. Advocates of security and civil liberties share an interest in abolition of the CAPPS profiling system (and, I hope, destruction of the files collected on innocent American travellers) and its replacement with universal passenger and baggage inspection and bag matching. That would be fairer, safer, and less vulnerable to abuse. [Update: That’s not happening. Positive matching of passengers and their luggage on connecting flights still isn’t required by the USA. Instead, the USA government has proposed a series of expanded, “enhanced”, and even more invasive programs, first CAPPS-II and then Secure Flight and Registered Traveler. Public comments on the Secure Flight proposal are being accepted through 25 October 2004..]

Universally more rigorous inspections will slow check-in. The main result will be to make trains more competitive in door-to-door time over longer distances. Improved rail service, particularly on corridor routes such as between Boston and Washington and between Northern and Southern California — where trains are more ecologically and economically appropriate anyway — could significantly relieve congestion at many airports.

But all this is relevant only to flights within the USA. Flights in the rest of the world, and foreign airlines flying to and from the USA, have long been much more secure than USA airlines’ domestic flights.

Finally, it’s important to remember that our safety and security depend most of all on understanding between people around the world that is the result, above all else, of the direct personal contact, experience, and learning that result from international travel.

What’s next for Leslie and Kim, eliminated from the CBS-TV around-the-world travel show The Amazing Race this week? “We want to do it [the trip around the world] on our own…. We’d do it again in a heartbeat.” Excellent advice for us all!

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