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Aehle: Days of easy flying gone

ALBANY, Ga. -- When the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center towers, the way Americans travel by air was changed, perhaps forever.

Yvette Aehle, director of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport, was deputy director of an airport in McAllen, Texas, on Sept. 11, 2001, when a friend called with an urgent, but simple, message.

"Turn on the TV now," he told her, then hung up.

Aehle switched on the TV, she said, and saw the first tower in flames. It was right after that she received the first fax from the FAA.

"Don't call us. We'll contact you," was the message, Aehle said. "I think it was to keep the lines open. We were told to close the gates with chains and we did. They (the FAA) wanted a list of all our employees, especially the newer ones."

The FAA ordered all airlines to get their airplanes down at the nearest airport.

"Everything was grounded right away," she said. "There were lots of planes stopped on their way somewhere. Jumbo jets were idled at really small airports and people were everywhere."

Rental cars were gone "just like that," Aehle said. There was no other way for people to reach their destinations.

"Rental car companies don't usually allow one-way rentals. That day they did. When all the people from the airplanes had gone, it got really quiet. It was eerie," Aelie said. "Airport employees had gone -- People from the restaurant, car rentals, airlines, customs, everybody. All we had was a bunch of airplanes sitting there. It took about five days to get the planes out, I think."

Aehle was holding press conferences every half hour for the first three days. Her boss, the airport director, was on vacation in Vermont, she said, "going crazy" trying to get back to Texas.

"I had been in airport management five years at that point," Aehle said," and I realized that day that nothing would ever be the same. It used to be fun -- and then it got serious."

From the ban on fingernail clippers, to patdowns, metal detecting wands and the 3-ounce maximum for liquids and gels, passengers have been smacked with a stream of FAA regulations designed to thwart terrorism in all its forms.

"You have to do a lot more planning now," Aehle advises. "Even right now I'm not sure what you can take on board and what you can't. The fingernail clipper ban was the stupidest thing ever."

Aehle tells people to put everything they're not certain about in their "checked" luggage -- like shampoo or liquids or anything sharp -- or "just buy new stuff when you get where you're going."

According to Aehle, customer impositions haven't slacked since 9/11 and she doesn't see it getting better. Changes include pressuring fliers to stay near their airport baggage or be "challenged" by security officers. Greeters can no longer meet friends or family at the gates. Police must be on hand to observe arrivals.

"And whatever you do, don't ever say the word 'bomb' inside the airport. You could be whisked off to who-knows-where and never be heard of again," Aehle joked.

Many modern air travelers would quickly name the much longer wait times since 9/11 as their No. 1 stress point. "Show up early" is more than a rule of thumb.

"Wear loose, comfortable clothing," Aehle advises, and eat before you get here so you're not hungry. Try to be patient."

The attack on the World Trade Centers in 2001 affected more than security, according to Aehle. In the aftermath of 9/11, all the airlines were suffering financially. No one wanted to fly. Many of them merged or went bankrupt. Survivors cut their fares to the bone and borrowed to stay afloat.

"Today's airline passengers have come to expect the lower air fares," Aehle said, "and that means more seats in the same sized planes and a lot fewer amenities. It used to be that once in a while you could find a row of seats all to yourself. Not now."

Aehle understands that flying is a stressful endeavor and that it isn't as easy as it used to be.

and even that TSA (Transportation Security Administration) personnel "can be rude at times." She states that each incident of rudeness is investigated, and encourages passengers to try to relax through it all and to remember that "we are still on high alert. Never forget what got us here."