A big convention had downtown Philadelphia booked solid. A hotel by the airport would have to do, serving as home base for a weeklong honeymoon of shopping and sightseeing. The date: Monday, Sept. 10, 2001.
In the morning, as the horrific events unfolded on the television, a strange sound greeted the Charleston couple. Actually, it was the absence of sound. No whine of jet engines. No rumbling roar of takeoff. "We looked out the window and the airport was abandoned, just desolate," recalled Shelly Treadway. In the days that followed, "I noticed I was looking up a lot, and seeing nothing for the first time." For most Americans, jet trails crisscrossing far overhead are as normal as the sky itself. When air travel was halted one year ago today for the first time in U.S. history, the vacant sky was a reminder that something was terribly wrong. Days later, when the planes returned, who didn't look to the first low-flying plane and feel a slight cringe?
"I was at a meeting in Charleston in the Atlas Building downtown, and from the window I saw a plane taking off from Yeager [Airport]," said Treadway, an area teacher. "I couldn't help but watch it until it was gone. It made me nervous." Like many, Treadway has a fear of flying. Planes' being used as weapons hasn't done much to ease fears.
The latest figures from the Air Transport Association show domestic and international air travel down more than 10 percent when compared with last year.
This week's numbers are likely to draw those percentages even lower. Charleston-based National Travel books, on average, about 250 airline passengers a day. Today, that number will be 111, said CEO Ted Lawson. "It's weak all week," he said. "It comes back up on [Sunday and Monday], but not back up to normal." At Yeager Airport on Tuesday, a smattering of passengers waited near the gates. As Karen Chapman prepared to board her flight home to Chicago, she shrugged and said, "What will happen will happen," but let on that she was a little nervous.
"I took a tranquilizer," said Chapman, who had been visiting her daughter in Oceana. Bill and Adeline Fast were traveling home to Houston after a two-week stay in Charleston visiting family. Bill booked the flights and said he wouldn't have cared if they had flown today. Adeline didn't feel that way. "I didn't ask him not to book the 11th, but I thought by now he would understand me enough to know," she said of her husband of 33 years. "We're all thinking about what happened last year, and we'll be happy to be home on the 11th." It is this personal element that lies at the root of the downturn in air travel, said Dr. Thomas Ellis, professor of psychology at Marshall University. "The possibility that we might become the victim of an air disaster was something, for the most part, that folks didn't really think about that much," Ellis said. "It was something that happened to somebody else far away, and we could sort of brush it off. [Sept. 11] was impossible to brush off. It was right there on the TV for hours and hours. "There's a phenomenon that occurs that causes us to overestimate the probability that something might happen to us. For example, if my neighbor's house burns down, then I'm going to revise my estimate of the probability that it's going to happen to me, even though the probability hasn't changed." At West Virginia University, Dr. Joseph Scotti, professor of clinical psychology, echoed the sentiments of his counterpart. He called it the "what if" factor, as in: "What if someone got through security?" Scotti knows how people feel. He, too, has a fear of flying. "I never liked it, but have always managed to do it," he said. "I'm incredibly reluctant now, but it hasn't stopped me. Those with a full-blown phobia are just not going to go." Avoidance maintains fearful beliefs, Ellis said. Conquering any fear is a slow process that can't be reasoned away with statistics. "A lot of people have found other ways to get around [the country]," he said. "This depiction of an airplane had never crossed our minds — an airplane as a weapon." To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.