The Nation's Best Run Airport — and Why It's Still Not Good Enough

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Crowds go through security checkpoints at Denver International Airport

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."

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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?

To see how airports are coping with those challenges, a team of TIME reporters and photographers decided to take an in-depth look at one airport, Denver International. It's an airport that to a large extent has adapted nicely to the post-Sept. 11 world. The huge, snaking security lines that attracted so much attention in the weeks after last year's terrorist attacks have largely disappeared even as traffic has edged back to pre-9/11 levels. Last Wednesday, on the busy day before the July 4 holiday, 115,000 travelers passed through Denver International Airport, compared with 99,000 on an average day in 2001. Flyers got a holiday surprise or two—like a red-white-and-blue-festooned sign at the United Airlines ticket counter reading, Warning! Fireworks forbidden in your carry-on and checked luggage. Violators may pay large fines and/or serve up to five years in prison. But waits at the security checkpoints (six have just been added, bringing the total to a generous 20) were usually less than five minutes, and passengers seemed to be handling the preholiday stress well—even the infirm elderly woman who tripped a metal detector and had to laboriously remove her black orthopedic shoes for inspection and watch her purse being ransacked before she was carted off, exhausted, in her wheelchair.

Behind the scenes, however, Denver International is struggling with many of the same security issues facing all the other U.S. airports. The screening process for passengers (handled by two private security firms at Denver and supervised by the TSA) is cumbersome, arbitrary and questionably efficient. (In a TSA study of 32 airports, not including Denver, nearly one-quarter of all fake weapons carried by undercover TSA agents were not detected.) The fact that most checked luggage is still not being screened for explosives remains a glaring lapse, and there's a raging dispute over the machines the TSA has selected for the job. Plus, as the LAX shooting at an El Al check-in counter revealed, there are plenty of other places in an airport that are vulnerable to people intent on causing havoc.

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