Then it happens: a passenger reaches into her carryon, and -- oops -- discovers a couple of small knives she'd forgotten were in there. The TSA screeners missed them. So she notifies a flight attendant, and the party is over. The plane goes back to the gate at Newark for a precautionary sweep. And the hours tick by …
Welcome to the sometimes tedious, often frustrating world of the TSA.
Is there an agency in the world with a dicier reputation than the Transportation Security Administration? Probably not as far as air travelers are concerned. Is this fair? Not exactly.
Believe me, the people of the TSA are well aware of their reputation -- as one employee says, "We have become numb to it." Still, the TSA's Greg Soule reminds us to look at the numbers: these security folks screen about 2 million people every day.
"Our officers and air marshals know they have to get it right each and every day in order to keep the airways safe," said Soule, a TSA spokesman.
But face it: security can be a royal pain.
Geoff Harris, a screenwriter in Los Angeles -- and a decidedly non-threatening-looking fellow -- has nevertheless been singled out for special "wand time" more than once.
"It's frustrating," he says, but what really irks him is all that time lost, just waiting around. "The TSA sets up all these special lines to make you think you'll get through faster, but it's like the lines at Disneyland -- it still takes forever."
I know what he means. I've been there, and I know you have, too. But, there's a lot of conventional wisdom about the TSA that really shouldn't be taken at face value. Let's try to dispel a few of these security myths.
Myth #1: The TSA is a transient force composed of people who can't find work elsewhere.
Reality: According to the TSA, more than 40 percent of its work force has been with TSA since its inception following 9/11 and transportation security officers spend an average of four years with the agency. Employee backgrounds include veterans, law enforcement officers, teachers and businesspeople.
Myth #2: The TSA doesn't do standard profiling because it is "politically incorrect."
Reality: Again, according to the TSA, they don't profile because it is not effective. "It is bad for security," Soule said. "We know that terrorist groups recruit from various age groups and people with a wide range of physical appearances. They recruit people who don't fit stereotypical terrorist profiles."
Myth #3: The TSA never finds anything really dangerous, because there's nothing to find.
Reality: According to a March article in the New York Daily News, people "think nothing of trying to walk onto planes armed to the teeth" and that includes loaded guns, and more. A TSA spokesman was quoted as saying, "Someone even once tried to bring a fully gassed-up power chain saw through a checkpoint."
Unbelievable -- though not quite as weird as the man caught carrying two live pigeons inside his pants -- but, that's another column.
Don't get me wrong: the TSA is not perfect. Yes, the screeners at Newark did miss the knives in the carryon (and yes, they've missed things before); those employees will be getting retraining (and by the way, it was not the TSA's decision to turn the plane around -- that is left up to the discretion of the pilot or airline). But there is no shortage of stories about other outrages -- such as the TSA screeners at Seattle-Tacoma who supposedly "lost" cremated remains -- that the TSA says, simply aren't true.
Meanwhile, the TSA is working on innovations they hope to have in place in the near future to cut down on some of the waiting-in-line time. For example, government techs are working on advanced technology X-ray machines that will eventually allow screeners to identify dangerous explosive materials which could be disguised as everyday liquids like lotions and such. And don't forget -- the TSA has already approved certain laptop bags that are screener-friendly, so laptops can stay in their bags. Time-savers, all.
I know some consider the whole screening process something of a joke -- I mean, just look at some of the comments on the TSA's own blog, which rather bravely makes them available for all to look at -- comments like: "What travelers see is really just a big show to instill confidence, yet little real security is being provided all the while people are being harassed…"
But remember -- the TSA's paramount mission is preventing another 9/11. So far, so good. Yes, I know some argue, it's not anything the TSA is doing -- it's the other safeguards, like reinforced cockpit doors that keep terrorists from trying again.
Maybe so, but the TSA says their mantra is, "not on our watch." And I think most of us are with them as we prove again and again by enduring those screening hassles every time we fly.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.