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Flying loses its romance after 9/11; Passengers express anger at air travel

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.

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.

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.

For passengers, the real legacy of the attacks might not just be more invasive security checks, new fees or other things we never had to worry about before -- like whether the name on our ticket precisely matches the name on our driver's license. It might just be losing our ability to relax in the skies.

Though children like Frank and Francesca can still feel the joy of flying, Ethan Estes of Louisville, Ky., could well speak for most adults.

"If the airline does everything perfect," he said, "the trip is just bearable."

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