Airports before 9/11

Airports before 9/11

We lost much in 9/11 and from our mistargeted responses to the event. Lives, loved ones, privacy, sanity, dignity, and even some of our nation’s morality.

Those are many big things we lost during 9/11. We rightly focus on those a lot, and will teach these topics to future generations. We take care to collectively remember the before and after, and how our society has changed. However, there are a few smaller things that I’d like to mourn as well, and preserve in our collective memory.

But the seemingly-small casualty that I’d actually like to mourn today:

Before 9/11, airports were far better places, hosting the rituals of joyful reunions as well as the rituals of bittersweet goodbyes.

Airports were a place in which you could savor last minutes with someone you might not see again for a while, or where you could celebrate their return comfortably. We have lost small rituals of everyday life that used to exist at the airport, and our lives are just slightly less full because of this. We have traded real, valuable life for false, valueless security.

Following 9/11, the US federal government changed the rules such that only ticketed passengers could go through security. Before that, anyone could just walk on through a metal detector and hang out with their loved one by the gate. As an example, you could surprise your long-distance partner with a marriage proposal, something only military personnel can do today. Imagine doing that in the baggage area instead, with the carousel spinning and creaking, and the arriving significant other chomping into a Cinnabon purchased on the walk from the gate. Not quite as dramatic…!

Think about the stress of that goodbye moment in the departures lane. Some of that stress is because traffic needs to keep moving, but the main source of stress is around security.
“Ma’am, you’ve got to move your car – you can’t idle here, no arguments – it’s for security reasons”
“Sir you can’t leave your vehicle unattended, you’ve got to say goodbye out in the cold”.

Yes, you can still pay to park and walk in. Yet, why bother if what awaits is only a cold lobby and 5 minutes with a departing loved one, who’s already feeling stressed about getting through the long security line in time?

So instead we try to get coffee somewhere near the airport, or try to savor the car ride on the way, and quickly hug goodbye in the chaos of the departure lane. There was a better way, and we should remember it. This is one reason we still love train stations.

There are some workarounds. For instance, often times there is a large area outside of customs at international airports where people can wait, waiting expectantly, looking up hopefully every time the automatic doors swoosh open. The scenes of joy there are heartwarming. Recently, Pittsburgh and SeaTac have started a program where you can actually get a pass to go through security. I’m happy about that program, although it is extremely cumbersome and I doubt the program will really change much behavior.

Of course, there were some downsides to that old world as well – theft probably happened more frequently with less security in place, for instance. However, there is still a slice of life that was lost which we can keep in our collective memory … and, based on those new programs at PIT and SeaTac, perhaps it’s not just one curmudgeonly, sentimental man on the internet who feels this loss.

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