Home » Opinion » Commentary: American fear of flying rooted in 9/11 terrorism attack

Commentary: American fear of flying rooted in 9/11 terrorism attack

This summer, I was fortunate enough to travel somewhere only accessible by airplane.

I was nervous about entering a new country and waited diligently on the plane for my customs form. I was shocked a few hours later when it became apparent that this European country didn’t care one lick about customs forms.

Recovering from my initial shock, I practiced my speech over and over again, reciting why I was entering the country, where I would go, whom I was traveling with and anything else I could imagine – only once again to realize it didn’t matter. I could barely sputter out a feeble “hello” before my passport was stamped and I was on my way.

This was a drastic change from the long security process I traveled through to board the plane here in my own country.

And then it hit me.

We are a generation terrified of flying.

Every spot of turbulence reminded me of “Lost” and I start counting out my fellow island members.

Even worse, every nervous look from a flight attendant and extra security check brought me back to Sept. 11, 2001.

This isn’t to say I quake in terror when I remove my shoes or flinch at the slightest delayed flight, but rather that, even though I consider myself a reasonable person, I’m mistrustful of planes and elated at touchdown when we finally arrive.

I remember 9/11, the day when my fears commenced, as well as any third grade child would. I was confused, scared and shocked that people would want to hurt one another.

So I did the only thing that made sense at the time and projected my complicated fear on what was tangible: airplanes.

In my mind, the towers came down and horrified a nation because planes crashed into the buildings. People with malicious intentions were able to cause so much destruction because they were allowed on planes. My world was flipped upside down because of vessels in the sky.

Airplanes were real, visible and distracted me from any idea of hate as the root cause, an idea I refused to believe in my childish mind.

As I’ve grown older and we’ve all been able to reflect back upon the day that stopped so many Americans in front of their televisions, I’ve grown and realized planes weren’t the cause or the problem.

And yet, we still find ourselves with a fear of flying.

The Washington Post reported earlier this year more than 26 million Americans suffer from some form of flight anxiety.

This isn’t all because of 9/11, but it doesn’t lighten any anxieties to walk through strenuous security features implemented in the last 10 years.

Since that time, airport security started screening all baggage for explosives, controversial pat downs and full-body scanners became commonplace and watch lists were drafted.

As I boarded numerous planes this summer, the rational side of my brain and the irrational side of my brain were at war. I told myself my fears were irrational but that didn’t really stop my palms from sweating or my stomach from clenching at takeoff.

But now I realize my 8-year-old self took the wrong conclusion from that day. The problem doesn’t start with airplanes; it starts in misunderstanding one another.

We fight because we don’t agree with people who are different from us. We start war because it’s easier than finding neutral ground.

As I reflect back on that September morning 12 years later, I realize the lesson we all should learn is to love a little more.

Sure, it’s not that easy and it doesn’t boil down that simply. There were decades behind the attacks and a dozen people could give at least a dozen reasons why they happened.

But ultimately, we’re all people, we’re all trying to make our way in the world and we all want to do what we think is right.

Remember the tragedy, remember those who died, but remember to put hate in the background.

Love one another because in the end, we’re all we have.


  1. It’s the mark of your generation that you are scared to fly because of terrorism. It’s the mark of my slightly older generation to be scared to fly due to TWA Flight 800. That happened when I was 12 and I couldn’t fly until I was 27!

  2. Thank you for this article. It is just an opinion, but it really lets us know (those of us that are in our 40’s and 50’s), what went on in children’s minds 12 years ago. I do not have kids, so I didn’t need to explain what 9/11 meant to them and the world. It is interesting to hear that you thought, at 8 years old, the fear should be of planes, and not terrorists. Thank you for a look inside a child’s mind on that terrible, terrible day.

  3. As an octogenarian, well traveled retired journalist for more than a half century, and a staunch supporter of OSU (the parent of a faculty member), I comment on Michele Theodore’s well written piece.

    I comment with the experiences of flying nearly as many miles as members of flight crews. First of all, I do and have always loved to fly. I go back to the days when passengers on commercial jets usually wore ties and jackets instead of jeans and T-shirts. I should also say that I had the pleasure of flying almost always in the first class section (either on the expense account or the courtesy of an upgrade).

    Although many things changed over the years (from props to jets to super speed Concords, from elegant dining to bring your own or none at all), the big change came on 9/11. Prior o that, there was the very rare highjacking of an aircraft. But it was 9-11 that brought the military (mostly National Guardsmen) to the airports. As an American, I was unaccustomed o seeing soldiers armed with automatic weapons watching over me. When I learned that most of these weapons were not loaded, it still was any Erie feeling. I expected it in many foreign airports but not in New York City or even in Ft. Lauderdale or Iowa City.

    Then of course came the intensive body searches, the removal of shoes (which became very difficult as I passed into my 70’s and 80’s- now changed rules abide). Then came the often rude, intimidating, TSA officers endowed with enormous authority and apparent lack of oversight. I did find a few TSA officers who were polite, efficient, sympathetic yet they were almost always located in small airports. Also in many countries known for friendliness to tourists. On rare occasions when I inquired during a search whether that agent has ever found a weapon, in almost every case my answer was either silence of an increase in the intensity of search on my body. Notwithstanding the fact that for the last decade and a half, I am dependent on a cane and in airports, a wheelchair. Though I do look some 20 years younger than I am, It shocked me to see “old” people (those who look like they are in the 90’s or more, being body searched.

    Considering my experiences and knowledge gained by my work experience, I came to realize that the enormous expenses engendered by such intense security was created by the need to appear strong. Appearance
    can be costly.

    I look at Israel who has the need (not appearance) of real security, their effectiveness should be copied. That would be real security, less costly, with well trained conscienceous employees. That might be an ecellent choice for “outsourcing”.

  4. No ****, Sherlock.

    Unfortunately, the idiots trained for TSA are trained to follow orders and protocol, not think.
    They lack any insight and cannot reason for themselves. So the people put in charge of our “security” are idiots! What’s worse, pretty much anybody short of a felon can sign up for “training.”

    I miss thee golden age of flight; when people were friendlier, airlines didn’t shove us in like cattle to be slaughtered, and passengers actually dressed nice for travel. Yes, they smoked, but it beats the nightmare of today’s air travel!

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