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A Dramatically Different Way to Travel

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 5, 2002; Page A01

Victor Yates approached Baltimore-Washington International Airport with one goal: to get through security as quickly as possible.

He had tucked his watch, wedding band, another ring, a money clip and coins into his canvas briefcase while riding the parking lot shuttle van. He had made sure the soles of his leather loafers had no steel plates. He'd slipped on a navy linen sports coat over his usual casual shirt, part of a business-traveler "uniform" he hoped would help him avoid extra attention. He had left the office two hours early, not knowing whether he would barely get to the gate or get stuck with hours to kill.

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Yates, 60, of Annapolis, said he welcomed tighter security after the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks. He just wished it hadn't made flying such a hassle.

"The whole ordeal of air travel has changed," Yates said recently before boarding his weekly flight to Los Angeles. "I don't think it's ever going to be back."

Airports may have fewer chaotic lines than they did last fall, but flying still feels dramatically different from the way it did before Sept. 11. A way of traveling that had become as easy and convenient as hopping a bus now begins with a series of stressful and often unpredictable tests that must be passed. As a passenger, you're no longer just a customer. You're a potential threat.

A nursing mother said she was forced to drink her own breast milk to prove her baby's bottles weren't Molotov cocktails. Yates, three times in a matter of a few months, had to remove his shoes in public and have them X-rayed before he switched to rubber soles. At Reagan National Airport, passengers must remember to go to the bathroom before boarding so they won't have to get out of their seats within 30 minutes of takeoff or landing and force the plane to divert to Dulles International Airport.

Those affected most by the changes -- airport operators, flight crews and passengers -- say reinforced cockpit doors and a heightened awareness to suspicious activity have made flying feel safer. But improvements have come at a frustrating, stressful and sometimes scary price.

Yates wonders why frequent business travelers like him who log thousands of air miles a year must endure hours of wasted time passing through security checks time and again.

US Airways flight attendant Aimee Grinnan tries to make eye contact with every passenger boarding her plane, taking note of those who avoid her gaze or ignore her cheerful greeting.

James A. Wilding, who as president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority runs National and Dulles wonders how he can meet cumbersome security deadlines and still ensure that his airports remain fun and relaxing places to begin a trip.

"Up until a year ago, most people who walked through the front door of an airport were sort of excited about being there," Wilding said. "The danger here is that we conduct ourselves in such a way, particularly on the security front, that people begin to dread an airport."

The Airport Operator

For Wilding, operating airports used to mean making sure passengers always had enough room to park, check luggage, eat and shop. It meant making sure the airports' size and facilities kept pace with passenger growth while offering the most travel destinations at competitive prices.

But after Sept. 11, Wilding's priorities changed dramatically: He now had to assure the government, and the flying public, that his airports were not only comfortable but also safe.

National, a jewel of the prosperous business travel market, was closed for three weeks after the attacks -- the longest of any major commercial airport -- because of its proximity to the White House and other potential terrorist targets. It's only now up to 85 percent of its pre-Sept. 11 flight schedule. The federal government continues to ban private flying there.

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