9/11: Five years later

Five years ago today, none of us could have known the world was about to change. Certainly no one gave much thought on September 11, 2001, to the impact 9/11 would have on the travel industry; our national psyche, not to mention national security, had been struck a more serious blow.

Travel is our little corner of the world here at SmarterTravel.com, though, and it's natural for us to look back over the last five years and think about how things have changed. Like so much else, travel today is very different than it was when that crisp fall day began.

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A month after 9/11, my colleague Tim Winship wrote, "On September 11, the universe of airlines was, in one fell swoop, separated into three distinct groups: airlines not in bankruptcy, airlines in bankruptcy, and airlines soon to be in bankruptcy." His words have proved prophetic.

No fewer than 12 significant airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection since 9/11: Air Canada, Aloha, ATA, Delta, Hawaiian, Independence Air, Midway, National, Northwest, United, US Airways, and Vanguard. American has avoided bankruptcy, but faces the challenge of overhauling its entire business model.

Independence Air, Midway, National, and Vanguard stopped flying altogether; America West merged with US Airways in an effort to help both carriers survive. Delta and United launched low-fare carriers, Song and Ted, respectively, in an attempt to compete with the cheaper operational costs of emerging superstar JetBlue and longtime low-fare king Southwest. Song is now a distant memory; Ted survives, but remains a poor knockoff of the "real" low-cost carriers.

Airport security has received renewed criticism in recent months, and with good reason. Air travel today is more of a hassle than at any time in the history of aviation, and there are some groups—including the world's largest pilots union—that think the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is taking entirely the wrong approach to security. Many of our readers agree.

Airlines have tried just about everything to cut costs (such as dropping most in-flight amenities), and then they've tried just about everything to lure us back (like adding new amenities).

The most significant trend today is the major airlines' push toward international route expansion, where competition from low-cost carriers is minimal. Business travel has also picked up, and the airlines are tripping over themselves to see which can offer the most luxurious experience for high-paying customers. It's a risky strategy, though, given the continued threat of terrorist attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, companies scaled back business travel to the bare minimum; they would surely do so again if another attack occured. International routes, too, seem likely to be the first to lose their appeal if a new attack makes us question the wisdom of flying.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. The industry has shown remarkable resilience, often in spite of itself, thanks in large part to the determination of the public to travel, even in the face of continued safety concerns and the far-reaching shadow of 9/11. In the months immediately following the terrorist attacks, U.S. airlines carried 25 to 30 percent fewer passengers than the previous year. Flights are fuller today than they've been since 9/11, and flight schedules are just about back to their pre-9/11 levels, too. AirTran, American, Continental, JetBlue, Midwest, Southwest, United, and US Airways are even showing modest profits these days.

The real measure of how far we've come—and how far we still have to go—is traveler confidence, however. Do we feel safe in the sky, or do we eye each other with suspicion? Do we think of September 11 every time we fly?

Personally, I do. Every time. That tells me there's still a long way to go.

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