I've probably flown more miles in the past two years than I did in the previous ten, but for all the annoyances of that travel, my trips over that period have been entirely free of the post-9/11 airplane anxiety that I experienced for the first year or so after the attacks. But this Sunday, flying down to DC on the shuttle, I had a classic relapse, no doubt triggered by the Gatorade bomb plot. Here's what happened: I'm sitting two rows behind one of the emergency exit rows, and about two minutes before the door is going to be shut, a woman with a British passport sitting in the exit row suddenly gets up and says something to the flight attendant -- I vaguely hear something about missing her friend -- and then grabs her bag and walks off the plane, after conferring briefly with the attendants at the very front of the aircraft.
This alone is pretty weird; I think to myself: are people allowed to leave the plane after they've boarded? And then I notice that none of the flight attendants comes to check her seat to see if she's left anything suspicious behind. But still, I'm not really worried, until a guy sitting in another row -- who also has a British passport (for some reason they were both still holding their passports visibly) -- gets up from his seat across the aisle, and sits down in the seat that the woman had left.
It's not much, I know, but it was enough to set off a mild panic attack, which reached almost comical heights when I peered over the top of the seats, and saw that the guy was reading a USA Today story about the new ban on liquids and gels.
The maddening thing about the whole experience was the internal debate that unfolded over the next few minutes. My natural inclination in any slightly awkward public situation is to not say anything and just let whatever is bothering me slide. But then I thought: if I have a second of consciousness between the explosion and my death, the second is going to be filled with one incredibly annoying thought: I can't believe I'm going to die and leave my wife and kids alone for the rest of their lives because I was too bashful to press the flight attendant button.
I decided to keep mum nevertheless. I started to feel a little better a few minutes into the flight when I noticed that the guy had fallen asleep against the window. I know these terrorists are committed to martyrdom, but somehow a pre-detonation nap seemed a little unlikely.
And I'm happy to report that the plane did not in fact explode. So I guess I was right to keep my suspicions to myself.