(Photo: John Siniff, USA TODAY)
I've flown on Christmas Day - always sad flights as you scan the faces row by row to see where the holiday magic has gone. Once I flew on Halloween night and was startled by flight attendants in witches' hats, green facepaint and brooms.
But this morning, I flew on the 12th anniversary of 9/11. It was a relatively simple hop from Rochester, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., on a day for flying that would have been unthinkable for many Americans in the past.
Experts say fear of flying on Sept. 11 has ebbed, and the numbers do show that the day's passenger traffic has returned to about normal in recent years. But it was hard to reconcile those statistics with the cavernous emptiness of Rochester International Airport on Wednesday morning.
"Yes, I thought about what day this is, and I prayed a little bit for those affected," said passenger Dolores Shear of Lyons, N.Y., looking anxiously for her departure gate in the quiet Rochester terminal. "But we were all affected, weren't we? I'm just hoping to have a safe trip."
"Every year, traffic on 9/11 drops considerably," said a stern security officer walking through a lonely corridor. "It's normal to see this so quiet on 9/11."
He, like other airport personnel, declined to be identified, nor would they talk about whether security had been tightened on this dreadful anniversary. Other airport workers disagreed about the lack of traffic, saying it was a normal Wednesday.
Still, was it my imagination that the TSA screeners seemed extra cautious on this Sept. 11 morning? After going through the usual full body scanner, a TSA guard snapped on a blue glove and asked if I was wearing a watch - I wasn't - before patting me down. This, as three policemen walked a bomb-sniffing dog through the near-empty security line.
The new normal, yes, but my mind went back to not only that morning 12 years ago, but the days of anxiety that followed. I remembered how the skies were clear of passenger planes for days. How fighter jets screamed low over cities like Washington and New York for weeks. And when passenger planes did reappear in the skies, how they seemed more like potential weapons than transportation.
"Even though it's 12 years after, it's still scary. It's like it was yesterday,'' said Deanna Rivera, 35, behind the counter at the airport's Dunkin' Donuts. "I was home watching it on TV, and now I'm working at an airport.''
A woman on my flight, Shirley Roberts of Rochester, said she wasn't worried. Hadn't thought about it, she said.
"Trust in the Lord first, and just fly!'' she told me. "There's no time for fright. Everything is in His hands.'' She quoted Psalm 37 and then said she was a pastor. We both smiled.
Once on board, United Flight 3449 was somber. There was none of the flight attendant patter that sometimes makes you roll your eyes. The only anxious moment came when a German passenger across from me got up to let a young woman in the shortest shorts possible sit by the window. He caught his feet in the shoulder bag under his seat and went flying headfirst down the aisle. Nervous laughter and relief filled the cabin.
My traveling companion showed me an e-mail he got from a friend, Lorraine Koerner, 43, a regional manager for Tommy Hilfiger, who was about to board a flight at a "scary quiet'' George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston for Los Angeles: "I thought, 'surely nothing will happen,' but it was all the people on the radio were talking about. I had to change to a CD."
Descending through thickening clouds after 70 minutes in the air - 9/11/13 was steamy on the East Coast, not clear and bright like 2001 - the jet landed and passengers filed out into a busy but also subdued Washington Dulles International Airport.
United Airlines had lost nine employees on 9/11 aboard two doomed flights, so I stopped to talk to the flight attendant, who identified herself as Jane. She said she wasn't allowed to talk to the media.
The pilot popped out of the cockpit and arched his eyebrow at the two of us. "He says he's from USA TODAY and wants to know what it's like to be flying on 9/11,'' she told him. "I said it's been quieter than usual, but fun.''
His eyes said something deeper. "As fun as could be expected today,'' he said softly.