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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 09:53 GMT 10:53 UK
Flying the deserted skies
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
Washington DC's newly reopened airport
Ryan Dilley

Many Americans have turned their backs on domestic air travel since the 11 September hijackings. Those still taking the flights which crisscross the nation are having to adjust to a new security regime.

Travellers taking the first shuttle flight of the morning from New York to Washington DC's newly reopened airport have been told to check in two hours before take off.

Scissors, knives, etc
Items confiscated from passengers at JFK Airport
Prior to 11 September, they could have breezed from their taxis to their plane seat in minutes.

At the departure lounge, an airport worker checks passengers' tickets against their photo IDs and points them towards the walk-through metal detector. Its alarm buzzes constantly, so sensitive is its setting. Belt buckles, poppers and even the metal studs on jeans seem to trip the device.

Almost everyone is subjected to a thorough pat-down search. Shoes are squeezed, belts yanked and shirts raised.

"I didn't find it at all embarrassing," says passenger Ralph Sicilano. "I will make a mental note not to pack anything too personal in my luggage though. They even went through the bags I was checking in and x-rayed my tennis racket. I've never heard of that before."

'Don't feel safer'

A surly-looking police officer casts his eye over the growing number of waiting travellers.

New York's JFK Airport
Standing watch at New York's JFK Airport
"I was glad to see they were being that thorough. I was very worried and had considered cancelling my flight and driving. I wanted to see actual security measures rather than just more security people standing around," Mr Sicilano says.

Rachel Greenstein is less impressed. "I didn't feel like anyone cared about the hand luggage going through the x-ray machine. They were looking the other way. I don't feel any safer at all."

Ms Greenstein was also one of the few in the lounge to escape a physical search. "When you go to a club in Manhattan, everyone gets the pat-down. This is far more serious."

Guarding the departure gate
Guarding the departure gate
Her friend, Sarah Hurley, feels equally cheated by talk of heightened security.

"They made a big thing about getting here early. I'd hoped they would spend that time carrying out security checks, rather than letting me sit here being scared."

Although a police sniffer dog is now circling the room, both would welcome more armed guards on patrol.

Stay seated at all times

At the gate there seems to be no evidence of the ethnic profiling which has reputedly seen "Arab-looking" passengers singled out for special scrutiny.

No one will be permitted to stand - this includes visits to the lavatory

Airport announcer
Several strapping male passengers look on as a wizened old lady is selected for a random pat-down search.

"No one will be permitted to stand for the duration of the flight. This includes visits to the lavatory," says a voice over the PA system. "If anyone stands up, the FAA has directed us to divert this flight to Washington's Dulles Airport."

Now buckled into her seat, a women who says she has a bladder complaint asks the stewardess what she should do if she "simply has to go". The answer is not the one she - nor those who have been guzzling coffee for the past two hours - had hoped for: Do not stand up.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
Security is tight at the airport in Washington DC
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was the last to reopen in the United States after the attacks.

It is situated in the centre of the capital, a stone's throw from the White House, the Capitol and almost every other symbol of the federal government - including what remains of the Pentagon.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
The air industry is struggling after the attacks
At last passengers are told they can stand. As they file from the aircraft, an airline worker booms: "Welcome back. Welcome back."

The airport is empty, save for National Guard troops with M16 rifles slung over their shoulders. The shops are closed and outside the new arrivals marvel that there are more taxis than waiting fares.

At the ticket desk, the check-in staff compete to serve the dribble of travellers heading to New York. The airline once offered as many as 17 shuttle flights a day but now as few as three are operating.

"You can't normally get a seat in the Reagan departure lounge it's so busy," says one New York-bound passenger, now spoiled for a spot to rest.

Manhattan 3 October
The gaping hole where the twin towers once stood
A Greek-born doctor, who has been counselling the families of those lost in the World Trade Center tragedy, says that the security measures are a little "extreme" and queries the no standing rule.

"Europeans are used to living with terrorism. I think people here are getting hysterical."

As the plane banks over the tip of Manhattan, powerful floodlights reveal "the pile" that was once the World Trade Center, described by some as the bitter fruit of the US's lax airport security. The doctor wipes away her tears. "I knew it would upset me seeing it."

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