By Joel Widzer Travel columnist
updated 9/14/2006 12:25:40 PM ET 2006-09-14T16:25:40

By now we have all been inundated with reminders that we passed the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Americans cannot and should not forget the atrocious attacks on American soil — attacks that shocked and changed the world forever. Among those whose lives have been changed are travelers and the travel industry itself.

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Leading the discussion of 9/11 topics is the question of air travel safety, specifically whether air travelers are any safer now than they were before the 9/11 attacks. Various interests have capitalized on this question, bending the discussion to fit their own agendas. For example, with pivotal midterm elections coming up and Democrats looking to regain control of both the House and the Senate, leaders of that party march to a drumbeat that declares travel security to be worse than before the terrorist attacks. This notion is backed by plenty of newspaper columnists and television pundits all taking the low road.

One example is a six-page spread from the September issue of a major travel magazine which lambasted the state of airline security with a collection of flimsy anecdotes. The writer borrowed a page from Florida Rep. John Mica’s playbook, dissing everyone from President Bush to TSA chief Kip Hawley and from airline management to airport officials. I read this article as I flew safely from New York to Orange County, Calif., sitting in my customary seat (1B), staring at the very-secure cockpit door. With an air marshal seated three rows behind me, I felt as secure as a baby in his mother’s arms.

The best training I received when I studied for my doctorate in industrial organizational psychology was in the technique of scientific investigation — examining facts and supporting conclusions with factual evidence. Unfortunately, propaganda has led otherwise intelligent individuals to a false impression about the state of air travel — that and a lack of firsthand experience. Whenever someone launches a tirade about how horrible and inconvenient air travel is, I usually inquire how often they have traveled in the past year. The answer is generally “once” or “twice.” Conversely, those who travel frequently usually tell me air travel is not much of a problem and that they feel safe whenever they fly. Whom are you going to believe: the people with a handful of personal experiences, or people who fly all the time?

Are we safer five years later? You bet!

Yes, our intelligence and security systems still need work, but the facts are undisputable: Not one major U.S. airline has suffered a terrorist attack since 9/11.

Not much of a benchmark, you say? Well, look at the incidence of airline security breaches since 1930. (That was the year history recorded the first airplane hijacking, after revolutionaries took over a plane in Arequipa, Peru, in hopes of dropping political leaflets over the countryside.) There were three hijackings in 1948; 109 from 1968 to 1969 (mostly to Cuba); and 255 from 1970 to 1972, at the height of the hijacking phenomenon. The industry reported approximately 300 incidents between 1977 and 1986, and approximately 200 from 1987 to 1998, including the notorious bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Yet today, airline hijackings are virtually unheard of. With the exception of the domestic bombing attacks in Russia, airliners have been untouched since the terrorist attacks five years ago. Attempts like Richard Reid’s shoe-bomb plot in December 2001 and the London plot discovered in August have all been foiled. Certainly this is no time to let our guard down or become complacent, but it is also no time to shrink back in fear.

Make no mistake. Travelers who don’t have much experience with the current state of air travel are prone to becoming pawns in a high-stakes game of politics. Politicians seeking reelection are using this cause to win votes, twisting and altering facts as skillful politicians can do. Before you jump on the “Woe are we!” bandwagon, look at the facts and understand that the evidence speaks otherwise.

Take it from this traveler, who has flown 190,000 miles so far this year: Each and every time I step on a plane, I have the fullest confidence in those working hard to secure the safety of my flight and yours.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site.

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