Passenger confidence vanishes at check-in desk

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The Independent Online

Drew McCullough had only just come to terms with witnessing at first hand the "Armageddon" of the World Trade Centre terrorist attack.

As he waited at terminal three in Heathrow to hear whether his flight to Newark was still taking off, he was confronted once more with the memories he had been trying to suppress.

The news came through that yet another American Airlines plane had crashed. Passengers' thoughts were for those affected but, for most, the abiding question had to be – was this another terrorist attack?

With New York's airports closed temporarily, United Airlines was forced to cancel a flight to the city and British Airways had to turn one plane back. Elsewhere, airline staff were determined to assure passengers that it would be business as usual.

Smartly dressed, a frequent transatlantic traveller, Mr McCullough, a project manager for a computer software firm with clients in New York, appeared anything but a nervous traveller.

Yet he insisted bluntly: "If I was married and had a family I was responsible for, I would be at home now. I was fine until today but I am not exactly looking forward to getting on this flight now."

Mr McCullough, 38, had been 100 yards from the World Trade Centre on 11 September when it was hit twice. He remembers all too clearly being engulfed in the debris that had once been the double skyscraper, searching frantically for colleagues.

"I was hugely affected by it but have refused to think about it. It was like watching Armageddon, like a film. You didn't believe it was actually happening," he explained.

His colleagues survived but the group of friends were faced with a further obstacle when they took their first flight home.

"The first time I got on a plane, I just wanted to stand at the door and pick the people who could come on. I wanted to be able to say 'I don't like the look of you – you can't come on'. I know that is totally wrong but it is just the way we felt. You wanted to search the plane yourself. If you could, you would have flown it yourself," he said.

"When I first heard about the plane today I just thought 'Oh God not again'. But I lived in Belfast for 30 years and I made a decision – they never stopped me doing what I wanted in Belfast and they won't stop me now. But I am a little bit more careful and a little bit more aware."

Near by, Polly Leeper, a 40-year-old teacher from Pennsylvania, stood gripping her luggage trolley nervously. Her voice tense and curt, she confirmed that she, too, was due to take the Newark flight.

She said: "I have got to get home. I have got to get on that plane. I have always been a nervous flyer. I don't think I could be any more nervous."

Kirsty Stonell, a 28-year-old employee of English Heritage, was ready to turn on her heels yesterday and leave the airport but for the gentle coaxing of her boyfriend.

The couple had planned a four-day break in New York, with Miss Stonell taking her first trip on a plane.

She said: "When it all happened on 11 September, I was nervous about it anyway. I was nervous about crashing, let alone someone blowing the plane up. But then I thought. 'It has happened once; what is the chance of it happening again?' I was very scared indeed but, after today, I am really, really, really, scared now."

However, after a comforting look from her boyfriend, Duncan Walker, 26, she added with determination: "I am damned if we are going to be stopped."

All across the airport, couples like Miss Stonell and Mr Walker were having tense conversations under their breath on whether to fly to the United States. Steve Collins, a 44-year-old aircraft engineer on his way to Hong Kong, was trying to assure his wife that she did not have to get on the plane if she was too frightened. The trip was supposed to be a treat for her 38th birthday.

Dawn Collins, who had left three children behind in St Albans, said: "I can still change my mind. Half of me is saying go and half of me is saying don't."

"I wouldn't blame her," her husband interjected.

An engineer for 27 years, he admitted he now felt very nervous about flying.

But he added: "I have to be back at work in Hong Kong tomorrow. I am worried about the lack of confidence in the business already and now it is just going to accelerate after today. Nobody in the airline business is certain about their jobs now."

But most travellers showed an admirably resilient spirit. Derek Kirby, 47, a businessman, was determined to get on the flight to Newark – which eventually took off late. "Since 11 September, we have all been forced to rethink our travelling, to consider whether it would be better to use teleconferencing but there are always times when you have to meet face-to-face," he said, adding: "Yes, I am nervous in these circumstances but you can't let them win."