Like most business travelers, I long ago stopped listening to airport announcements. They are designed to sound authoritative even when they're saying no more than, "Mr. Smith, please go to a white courtesy telephone. Mr. John Smith, please go to a white courtesy telephone." We rely on our name, spoken, to catch our ear, and let the rest pass.
That's why an announcement in the San Francisco International Airport last week caught my ear only at the very end. "Destroyed," it said -- and ended.
Destroyed? Who? Where?
An ear-catching word, "destroyed." They should have put it at the beginning.
But of course the announcement was repeated. (Whoever reads airport announcements must go home at night speaking double: "Hello, dear. Hello, dear. How was your how was your day day?") The second time through, I heard the whole thing: "Please do not leave your luggage unattended. Unattended luggage will be confiscated and destroyed."
I've always suspected that was official airline baggage policy -- and not just for unaccompanied baggage, either. But how extraordinary, I thought, to have them actually admit it! I had a brief vision of RoboCop rolling through the terminal blasting offending bags.
Reality dawns eventually. Even the malice of baggage handlers doesn't extend to search and destroy missions. The motive force behind the message was, of course, not blind baggage hatred but fear of terrorism.
It was only one of a number of steps being taken to keep travelers unterrorized. We've all heard of them in the last three weeks -- tough baggage inspections, screening of passengers ... .
Having heard rumors of long delays at check-in, I telephoned the airline the day before my flight out of New York. How early should I arrive at the airport? Not less than 90 minutes, was the answer. I'm an inveterate late arriver: Minutes not spent sitting in a departure lounge are golden, each one added to the span of our real life. Still -- new times, new customs. If more careful screening of passengers and luggage demanded an earlier arrival at the airport, then for safety's sake, I was ready to sacrifice an hour to the gods of war.
Arriving at JFK with the prescribed 90-minute cushion, I found that curbside check-in had indeed been abolished, as I expected. But something else was missing too: the long lines I'd anticipated at the check-in counter. I walked through the ticket check at the gate and ran my carry-on bags through the machines. Nothing new there. I walked to the departure gate, which was nearly empty. But what do you expect, an hour before flight time? New Yorkers apparently hadn't changed their habits on account of a few terrorist threats.
After I sat for an hour in the echoing space of the departure gate, I realized that the phenomenon was more fundamental. It wasn't that people weren't coming early: They weren't coming at all. No one was flying!
Well, not quite no one; but our 767 to San Francisco had half the seats empty in tourist class, and up in first there were acres of empty vinyl.
I detected no fear of flying among my fellow passengers, nor did the mix of tourists to business travelers seem different from the usual.
Certainly some businesses have reduced travel, and over the last few weeks I've had meetings canceled because participants from Europe and Japan were instructed by their companies not to travel. But other companies -- such as my own -- carry on with travel as usual, or leave the choice to the traveler. After all, for a lawyer (or an accountant, or any consultant paid by the hour), staying home often translates directly into lost income. So it would seem the airlines can count on a hard core who will keep flying regardless. But the hard core wasn't enough to fill my flight, at least.
There have been reports recently that it's now difficult to change to an earlier or later flight than the one shown on your ticket. Gate security agents reportedly either won't let passengers through at all with a ticket for a flight not departing shortly or insist that the ticket be revalidated at the ticket counter, which requires standing in a long line. It didn't happen to me.
On my return, I arrived at San Francisco International at 11:45 a.m. for a 3:30 p.m. flight, with hopes of making the 12:30 instead. Not only that, I was traveling with my wife on a pair of nonchangeable coach tickets. But since my outbound flight had been so lightly loaded, I assumed the airline wasn't going to make me wait three hours as a matter of principle.
I dropped her at the door and went to turn in the rental car while she tried to change the tickets. I was back at the airline check-in counter shortly after noon (the efficiency of rental-car agencies these days is one of the miracles of modern science). My wife was waiting, revised tickets in hand. It had taken her less than five minutes to wait in line and change our no-change tickets. The security agents passed us without a second glance.
I did discover one unexpected security precaution, however: I was unable to mail a letter at JFK in New York. There used to be post boxes in the gate areas. They've all been closed. And why not? If unattended luggage isn't to be trusted, neither is an unattended letter or small package.
I've also heard tales of passengers hauled down to the tarmac to point out their bags before any luggage was loaded. This was another problem I didn't have. Both going and returning there was the usual once-through-the-X-ray-machine; but -- except for the "search and destroy" announcement -- nothing more than that.
I've seen tighter security for years in Europe, where I have been subjected to the "point-out-your-bag" routine (at Frankfurt -- and I certainly didn't object to it). In some European airports machine-gun-toting soldiers cruise the gate areas with dogs trained to sniff out bombs. But on this trip, the announcement of intent to destroy luggage was not backed up with military force. There were no troops in evidence, no dogs, no machine guns. The traveling public, it seemed to me, was to be made cautious but not nervous.
William E. Holland is a lawyer with the firm of Chadbourne & Parke in New York.