ATLANTA - If you thought airline travel couldn't get any worse, just wait.
The summer vacation season is upon us, and travelers may be confronted with a perfect storm of weather delays, increased passenger load, poor service from cash-strapped airlines and hassles inflicted in the name of improved security.
It's enough to make you want to stay home.
If you are seated in coach (or steerage, as I have come to think of my regular seating), you can no longer expect a meal, even on an international flight.
On a recent flight to Central America, Delta Airlines served those of us in coach something the flight attendants generously called a "snack" - a processed cheese spread, four crackers and two Oreo cookies. (At least the flight attendants were pleasant. Given the pressures of pay cuts and layoffs, I expect them to be sour, and, sure enough, some are.)
Northwest Airlines recently announced it will no longer serve even those chintzy little free bags of pretzels on domestic flights. Instead, passengers will be able to purchase a 3-ounce bag of trail mix for a buck.
Adding to the discomfort, Federal Aviation Administration head Marion C. Blakey told a Senate subcommittee last week that the National Weather Service is forecasting a "very rough convective weather season." In other words, it'll be a stormy summer. "Boy, I'll tell you, we could be looking at some real delays," she said.
But of all the inconvenience associated with air travel these days, I find none more annoying than the ritual of clearing security. It is a futile exercise designed to provide the illusion of security, not the real thing.
It's also unpleasant. Passengers must virtually disrobe - stripping off jackets, jewelry, belts and usually shoes to pass through metal detectors. Some passengers have complained of having their persons immodestly searched by hand, in full view of other passengers. And though many Transportation Security Administration agents are smiling and helpful, too many are rude and sarcastic, having no grasp of the term "public servant."
Too many are also incompetent. In the fall of 2003, two years after 9/11, plainclothes federal agents were able to smuggle weapons, explosives and other contraband past screeners in several major airports. In April, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general issued a report saying screeners' performance had not improved much since then.
If you think about the origins of the homeland security agency - of which TSA is a part - none of this comes as any surprise. Initially, President Bush didn't want it, but he caved in to political pressure. Also, hard-right Republicans in Congress didn't want to spend the money for thorough airport security. They would have been happy to let the airport screening responsibility remain in the hands of private companies, even though they had failed miserably on 9/11.
But there was one big problem: Americans were rattled - severely so. Air travel dropped precipitously, and airline executives howled. Since Big Business is a GOP core constituency, Congress and the president had to do something to convince travelers that the skies were safe.
The result was the current system, hastily thrown together and maintained on the cheap.
This smoke-and-mirrors security system has worked well to provide the illusion of airport safety. Passenger loads have not only rebounded but increased. This year, the FAA expects airlines to carry 710 million passengers, up from the previous peak of 698.9 million in 2000.
But Congress - which, like the president, wants security without financial sacrifice - shortsightedly insists on maintaining a nationwide cap on full-time airport screeners of 45,000. That means busy airports such as Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson are likely to have fewer TSA agents than they need during the summer.
Some entrepreneur should open a chain of budget salons at the nation's busy airports.
Since I'll already have my shoes off, I could get a pedicure during the hours I'll spend waiting.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.