Twenty years ago, terrorists hijacked four commercial planes and essentially turned them into bombs, carrying out one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history. And air travel was never the same again.

The shocking tragedy brought air travel to an immediate halt, which lasted two days — and, for a considerable time thereafter, travelers remained scared. It took months for the airline industry to recover, and in the meanwhile the carefree days of flying the skies in comfort vanished.

“It completely upended the way we travel,” said David Slotnick, senior aviation reporter for the Points Guy travel website.

Flying suddenly was no longer an easygoing, laid-back experience. “You used to be able to show up 45 minutes before your flight, waltz through security, maybe grab a cup of coffee, and make it to your gate with time to spare,” Slotnick said. “The security process after 9/11 — which has evolved over the years — led to today’s environment, when the safe thing to do is arrive two hours before a flight.”

Two decades after 9/11, airlines and airports are grappling with another global crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, and again their operations have been upended. Airline employees are suddenly on the frontline of the effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus causing COVID-19. Desk agents are tasked with verifying vaccine and testing records for international itineraries. Flight attendants must ensure all passengers abide by federal rules around mask wearing — often facing hostility and even violent outbursts in the process.

And much as with the fallout from 9/11, the pandemic has triggered a sharp downturn in consumer demand, leading companies to consider new ways to conduct business.

“Whereas 9/11 was a temporary but major disruption of the industry, COVID has the potential to reshape the industry in entirely new ways,” said Willis Orlando, member-operations specialist at travel website Scott’s Cheap Flights.

After 9/11, extensive security screenings became the norm

Today, it’s second nature to submit to rigorous security screenings. When we head to the airport, we know to pack liquids in a quart-size plastic bag, remove our laptops and electronic devices from our carry-ons and take off our shoes before going through a full-body scanner.

But all of that is a very new, relatively speaking. Security protocols existed before 9/11, but they were far less stringent. Individual airports were allowed to manage their own screenings at that time, as long as they complied with federal standards. And airport operators aimed to downplay the security procedures.

“Before 9/11 it was as invisible as the airlines and airports that were responsible for it could make it, because they didn’t want it to be an impediment to travel,” said Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian and professor at the University of Dayton.

That all changed following the terrorist attacks. Security operations were centralized under a new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration, and, over time, the screenings became more intense.

The pre-boarding screenings weren’t the only security-related changes, though. Airplanes were redesigned to have more secure cockpits that were less prone to being breached by a would-be hijacker.

All of these changes to security procedures have had ripple effects for the way we travel. Pre-9/11, there were far more shops and restaurants in airports before travelers reached security checkpoints — those have moved further inside, given that people will commonly show up long before their flights these days. It’s also necessitated new amenities to make the process enjoyable, or at least more easily bearable.

“People also needed to learn how to be productive in the airport, which led to the proliferation of Wi-Fi and a renewed emphasis on airline lounges for business travelers,” Slotnick said.

Like 9/11, COVID could prompt industry consolidation

In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Congress created a $10 billion fund to bail out struggling airlines and a new government body, the Air Transportation Stabilization Board, to oversee distribution of the loans. Nevertheless, the travel downturn led ultimately to bankruptcy filings by multiple prominent carriers, and others were forced to engage in mass layoffs to stay afloat.

The period of extended 9/11 fallout also saw major industry consolidation, especially as the 2008 global financial crisis quickly added to the industry’s woes. Fast forward to 2021, and, in recent days, many airlines have issued profit warnings as travel demand has waned amid rapid spread of the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

There’s one key difference between 9/11 and COVID, in terms of the industry’s financial health: Prior to COVID, airlines were raking in money and enjoying a new heyday in travel, whereas before 9/11 the industry was already suffering financially, industry experts noted.

Looking ahead, much will depend on public health officials’ success in containing the coronavirus. “Many of us thought we would be out of this by now, but it just continues with more variants and other issues that are prolonging it,” said Jeff Price, owner of Leading Edge Strategies, an aviation and airport management training company. “The longer the pandemic goes on, the harder it will be on air travel.”

Travelers have reacted very differently to COVID-19 protocols

Flight attendants suddenly took on a more prominent role in terms of flight security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Before, their role in aircraft security was not really well-recognized — they were the girls in the go-go boots and all of that from the ’60s,” Bednarek said. “The idea that there will be consequences if you don’t follow the instructions of the flight crew is very much a post-9/11 reality on an airplane.”

That has echoes today, with flight attendants now tasked with even more safety-oriented responsibilities amid the pandemic. Besides the standard safety-practices demonstrations and beverage service, flight attendants are now entrusted with ensuring that passengers abide by federal requirements around mask wearing. On flights today, it’s not unusual to see a flight attendant approach passengers with pointed guidance on covering their faces properly.

“‘The idea that there will be consequences if you don’t follow the instructions of the flight crew is very much a post-9/11 reality on an airplane.'”

— Janet Bednarek, aviation historian

The response to the COVID-era rules and policies from the general public is very much unlike what happened after 9/11. It’s a development that Bednarek described as “startling.”

“It’s curious to me that people will go to an airport — they will have their ID scrutinized, they will walk through a magnetometer or have their bags X-rayed and they may go stand on the yellow footprints and have a full body scan — and just do it out of course, not even think about it. But then, when they’re asked to keep their mask on, it will result in fisticuffs on an airplane,” Bednarek said.

President Biden announced Thursday that the Transportation Security Administration would double fines levied against passengers who don’t abide by its mask requirements. “If you break the rules, be prepared to pay,” Biden said.

Airlines have also grown emboldened in the face of unruly passengers over the course of the pandemic, with many saying that passengers whose behavior is out of line or who don’t follow flight crews’ orders will be banned from future flights. That zero-tolerance attitude is likely to carry on even once the health emergency has faded, Bednarek said.

A frictionless future for air travel

Some of the changes that have come about because of COVID may not have much staying power in a postpandemic world. For instance, waived flight-change fees make sense at a time when airlines don’t want to scare away passengers but may not function well once the industry begins to recuperate.

But some pandemic-related innovations are likely to become the norm, including the reduction of touch points at airports. Airlines and airports have changed their policies to reduce the number of physical interactions between employees and travelers. Many carriers now encourage the use of mobile boarding passes, and some airports have added facial-recognition technology to help move passengers through security more efficiently.

These trends were already in place before the pandemic, but COVID is accelerating adoption, Bednarek said. “Anything that will remove friction — that will move people faster — is going to be adopted and will be more prominent going forward,” she said.

The potential decline of business travel

Earlier this year, airlines anticipated that widespread vaccination would power a resurgence in business travel, with conferences and in-person meetings back on the calendar. Unfortunately, the latest wave of the pandemic, prompted by the delta variant, has scuttled many such plans, significantly reducing corporate demand for flights.

In the immediate response, airlines have opted to offer significant discounts on premium accommodations aboard flights in order to fill business- and first-class seats. And while some demand will come back once large-scale events do resume, there could, nonetheless, be some lasting changes.

“Before, let’s say a business traveler had to go to Paris five times a year to service a contract, maybe they can get away with only going four times per year and doing one virtual meeting,” said Price, who is also an aviation professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Multiply that by a few million business passengers and you have a significant impact on air travel.”

Plus, some business travelers have begun opting for chartered flights over commercial ones, at least in part to avoid the pandemic-related headaches associated with visiting an airport in this current period.

“‘High-speed air travel will allow people to get to meetings and get back home within the same day.'”

— Jeff Price, Leading Edge Strategies

In the wake of the 9/11 downturn, airlines sought to buttress revenue by adding seats to planes. While carriers won’t necessarily mimic that approach following COVID, they will seek to address the revenue lost to reduced business demand.

One potential avenue for this could be supersonic flights. United Airlines has already announced plans to roll out a fleet of high-speed, Concorde-style jets in the near future. While a trip on such a plane would carry a steep price tag, it might be just the ticket for newly travel-averse executives.

“It might sound pie-in-the-sky, but the saving grace, I feel, will be the advent of supersonic and hypersonic flight,” Price said. “High-speed air travel will allow people to get to meetings and get back home within the same day.”

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