Sept. 11 changed everything _ about air travel

Monday - 8/15/2011, 8:30am EDT

By SCOTT MAYEROWITZ
AP Airlines Writer

(AP) - Five-year-old Frank Allocco is 37,000 feet above America, face pressed against the window.

"Cool," he says to his 6-year-old sister. "Francesca, look."

It's their first flight. They ignore a Harry Potter DVD and video games. Instead, there are rivers, mountains and tiny cars below.

Francesca chimes in: "Wow, Frank, look at that cloud."

For Frank and Francesca, soaring high above the country is magical. The kids from Park Ridge, Ill., are treated like stars. A flight attendant gives them wing pins. Mom and dad snap photos.

For most of us, though, the romance of flight is long gone _ lost to Sept. 11, 2001, and hard-set memories of jets crashing into buildings.

We remember what it was like before. Keeping all our clothes on at security. Getting hot meals for free _ even if we complained about the taste. Leg room.

Today, we feel beaten down even before reaching our seats. Shoes must be removed and all but the tiniest amounts of liquids surrendered at security checkpoints. Loved ones can no longer kiss passengers goodbye at the gate. And airlines, which have struggled ever since the day terrorists used airplanes as missiles, are adding fees, squeezing in passengers and cutting amenities to survive.

In interviews conducted during a week flying around the country _ nine flights totaling 8,414 miles _ many passengers expressed anger with air travel, which they said left them feeling like second-class citizens. Generally, the terrorism fears that prompted most of the changes were a distant afterthought.

"Anytime I walk into an airport, I feel like a victim," said Lexa Shafer, of Norman, Okla. "I'm sorry that we have to live this way because of bad guys."

Despite the aggravations, America's skies are busier than ever. Airlines carried 720 million passengers last year, up from 666 million in the year before the attacks.

There was little concern about terrorism even on a flight that was almost identical _ same route, airline, plane type and departure time _ to United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11 after passengers fought the terrorists for control.

Instead, passengers were jockeying for position at the gate as if they were waiting for the doors to open on a day-after-Thanksgiving sale. They glanced at each other's tickets and mumbled complaints when somebody boarded before they were supposed to.

"Passengers have lost civility," said Karen McNeilly, of Gold Hill, Ore.

And it's not just the boarding process that would make Emily Post cringe.

On a flight to Houston, an oversized man stole a window seat. Why? Because in his assigned seat he would have spilled into the aisle. The rightful occupant couldn't really object since the seat-stealer was already firmly planted, tray table down, Burger King cup out.

It's easier now for passengers to get annoyed with each other. We're simply getting packed in more tightly by airlines that are reining in costs more than they ever did before the terror attacks.

A decade ago, an average of 72 percent of seats per flight were occupied. Today, 82 percent are. Passengers once had a shot at an empty middle seat. Now that rarely happens. Airlines have added rows, meaning less leg room. Smaller, regional planes now carry a quarter of all passengers, twice that of a decade ago.

"It is a dismal experience that you simply put up with because you have to get from point A to point B. It used to be the part of the trip you looked forward to," said Virgin America CEO David Cush. "As an industry, we've found a way to beat that joy of flying out of people."

In another effort to balance their books, airlines have added fees for once-free services. Last year, $8.1 billion in fees were collected, more than three times the $2.5 billion collected before the attacks, adjusted for inflation.

Checked-luggage fees accounted for $3.4 billion of the 2010 total. Without them, major airlines would have lost money last year rather than reporting a combined $2.6 billion in profits.

It's no wonder that for shorter trips, Americans now avoid flying. New inter-city buses have popped up and Amtrak now carries 37 percent more riders than a decade ago. Buses and trains don't have the security checkpoints that make it necessary for air passengers to arrive at the airport about an hour before domestic flights and two hours in advance for trips out of the U.S.

The days of arriving minutes before a flight are a distant memory, and lines are inconsistent. While one Transportation Security Administration checkpoint took four minutes to clear, another involved a 27-minute wait.