Best & Worst of Times

Peter Horner, editor

The world changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001. Or did it?

Certainly the world changed for the thousands of people who lost loved ones, friends and colleagues at the World Trade Center catastrophe. Our hearts go out to all of them. Certainly the world changed for the men and women in the military and for those public officials charged with keeping our country safe and secure.

And the world most definitely changed for the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also changed for Middle Eastern male visitors to the United States, and, as OR/MS Today columnist Vijay Mehrotra found out, for Americans who happen to look "foreign."

For the vast majority of Americans, however, the only thing that changed was our perceptions of the world. Now that the initial shock of Sept. 11 has worn off, we see that the world is still spinning around pretty much as it did before the catastrophe, except, of course, when we go to the airport. That's when our heads start spinning with troubling questions.

Could the catastrophe have been prevented? Could it happen again? What do we do now? Is it safe to fly? Should I fly? Would I want my daughter/son/wife/husband/mother/father to fly?

MIT professor and operations researcher Arnold Barnett has probably spent more time thinking about these kind of questions than anyone. For one thing, Barnett is a frequent flyer, and he has family and friends who fly. He is also the "nation's leading expert" on air travel safety according to NBC News. Barnett has researched the subject for 23 years, consulted with 13 airlines, five airports and the FAA. He has studied such topics as public perceptions about air safety and the effects of those perceptions on flying behavior. In short, if anyone can answer the questions that haunt all of us as we head for the airport, it's Arnie Barnett.

That's what I was thinking when I contacted Arnie shortly after the WTC disaster. As it turned out, Barnett was in the process of preparing a presentation on air safety for the INFORMS Miami Beach Meeting, a presentation he had to alter in the wake of Sept. 11. Barnett agreed to put together an article for OR/MS Today based in part on his Miami paper. The new title: "The Worst Day Ever".

I've flown twice since Sept. 11, both times out of Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, the scene of the infamous wrong-way run by a University of Georgia football fan desperately trying to catch a flight to a Bulldog game. His ill-advised sprint around security officials and down the up-escalator didn't score any points with his fellow travelers. Hypersensitive airport officials closed down the airport for several hours, delaying flights throughout the eastern half of the country, as they searched for the stray Bulldog.

The Hartsfield fiasco raises more troubling questions. Did Hartsfield officials make a wise decision when they shut down the airport, stranding thousands of travelers and costing airlines millions of dollars? What about New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision to close down the bridges and tunnels leading in and out of Manhattan when an American Airlines jet crashed shortly after taking off from JFK Nov. 12? And what about California Gov. Gray Davis' decision to go public with a rumored threat to blow up one or more of the state's suspension bridges? Thousands of people, fearing for their safety, stayed home that day, resulting in tremendous losses in terms of wages and productivity.

Ralph L. Keeney, a professor at the University of Southern California and the co-author of "Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions," probably spends as much time thinking about values and the decision-making process as Barnett spends on aviation safety issues. Who better than Keeney to author a piece on "The Clash of Values" when weighing the threat of terrorism against civil liberties? Keeney accepted my offer. His thought-provoking essay appears on page 18.

As we close the books on 2001, we look behind at a year that started with the economy heading for recession. Everything went downhill from there. The dot-com industry imploded, turning the Silicon Valley into the Village of the Damned. Unemployment soared, the stock market plunged. And then things got worse, much worse. Suddenly our paper losses paled in comparison to the human toll of Sept. 11 — "the Worst Day Ever."

Given all that transpired last year, 2002 can only be better. At the very least, 2002 will give us a chance to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Operations Research Society of America, the forerunner of INFORMS. We get a jump on the party in this issue with a Q&A; with Saul Gass. Saul joined ORSA in 1952, the year it was founded. He's been an active (and vocal) booster of the profession ever since. To hear more about some of OR's "Best Days Ever," turn to page 40.