In the 18 months since the federal Transportation Security Administration took over passenger screening at the 429 commercial airports in the US, many frequent fliers have collected tales of silliness, rudeness and apparent ineptness as they pass through security checkpoints.
But John Bace remembers how much worse security sometimes was before the agency arrived at the airports to replace privately employed, poorly paid airport security screeners with 55,000 better-paid, better-trained federal employees.
The anecdote he cites happened in the fall of 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when National Guard troops carrying rifles were stationed just inside airport security zones.
"As I was waiting in line to go through the screening myself, several guardsmen were permitted to cut to the front of the line as they were about to take their place on the other side of the magnetometers," recalled Bace, a research director at Gartner Inc. in Chicago.
What happened next astonished him.
One by one, the guardsmen placed their loaded M-16 rifles and their pistols on the conveyor belt, sending them through the X-ray machine to be scanned, and then meekly walked past the guards to retrieve the weapons. "I started to say, `But why?"' Bace said.
"But a sergeant just said: `Don't ask. They were told everything had to be scanned.' The look on his face said it all to me: `You just have to pass through here. I stay here and work with these people,"' Bace said.
Today, airport security continues to take heat from many sides. Passengers gripe about shoe searches and pat-downs of little old ladies.
Members of Congress and officials in the aviation industry denounce the agency as a bureaucratic money pit (it spent nearly US$6 billion in the 2002 fiscal year) that is largely unaccountable to legislative oversight.
Airport managers and outside security experts say the public -- which sees only the heavy uniformed presence at passenger checkpoints -- would be shocked at gaping security holes in air cargo and baggage handling areas, not to mention sea ports and borders.
A closer look, however, puts the security agency in a better light. One figure -- zero -- tells a big part of the story. That is the number of people, out of the nearly 1 billion passengers who have passed through TSA security, who have been injured or killed by terrorists at airports or on airplanes since Sept. 11, 2001.
Safety aside, the security agency and its sympathizers say that politeness and professionalism are now routine in the check-in experience, and many business travelers and other frequent fliers agree.
In recent weeks, though, a growing number have been complaining about a perceived deterioration in standards.
As summer travelers hit the airports and checkpoint lines grow, some worry about a replay of the dreaded airport "security hassle factor," which airlines said last year was driving people away from flying.