Bruce Baumgartner, manager of aviation at Denver International Airport, was at home July 4 when his pager went off. The airport's command center was calling with news of the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport. Baumgartner, a no-nonsense engineer who was once in charge of fusing and arming Minuteman missiles, snapped into action. First, he had to determine whether the incident was part of a coordinated attack that might directly affect Denver. Satisfied that it wasn't, he went on to assess whether it called for any fundamental rethinking of his airport's security. The short answer is no; even with 240 armed police officers assigned to the airport, along with scores of security people, preventing such random acts is all but impossible.
But the L.A. shooting rang other bells for Baumgartner. For months he has been wrangling with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the new federal agency in charge of the nation's air security, over the baggage-screening machines the TSA has ordered to be in operation at all 429 U.S. airports by the end of the year. Denver will ultimately need 50 of these bulky machines, which weigh 10,000 lbs. apiece and stand about five feet high, and the TSA wants them placed in the main terminal, next to the ticket counters. The mere thought of this makes Baumgartner's fleshy face turn red. The machines would take up space currently needed for passengers, he argues, and would add to the congestion--offering an even more inviting target for people like the L.A. shooter. Instead, Baumgartner wants the machines hidden away underground, amid the expanse of Disneyesque rail track that transports luggage from ticket counter to airplane. "I can have either machines or people in my terminal," says Baumgartner. "I can't fit both."
No one ever said running an airport is easy, but it became infinitely more complicated after Sept. 11. So did flying. The terrorist attacks robbed airports of their last vestiges of romance--the promise of adventure and freedom, a setting for emotional reunions and teary farewells. Over the years the flying public, in exchange for low fares and frequent service, has learned to put up with a lot--overcrowded hubs, vanishing airline meals and that great marketing coup of the late 20th century, the nonrefundable airline ticket. But after Sept. 11, all the old complaints about air travel were suddenly rendered moot. Airports are now high-stress zones where only two issues really matter: Is it safe to fly, and can it be made safe without turning air travel into such a debilitating ordeal that it's simply no longer worth the hassle?