Washington — The first time Melissa Marcello of Washington had her bags individually hand-searched, she burst into tears from embarrassment and frustration.
It was a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, and she was flying to Washington out of Westchester County Airport in New York. The security agents pulled her out of line, grabbed her bags and told her she couldn't touch the bags until the search was completed.
The agents pulled all of her garments out of her carry-on bags and the luggage she planned to check. When she tried to hand the agents one of her bags, they snapped at her, telling her not to touch it.
"It was horrible. Everyone seemed very stressed and agitated, and they kept yelling different things," said Marcello, a vice president for SWR Worldwide, a public affairs research firm.
After three security checks in recent weeks, Marcello now knows what to expect. When she was recently picked for a random security search while flying from Atlanta to Washington's Dulles International Airport, Marcello requested that a female security agent search her bags.
She packs differently. More neatly. And she has started isolating her undergarments, stuffing them down into her bag rather than dispersing them among her clothes.
These days, thousands of air travelers are finding themselves and their personal belongings on display in front of their fellow passengers as airports tighten security.
Many travelers find it embarrassing and a little frustrating, but most of these travelers said they feel safer because of the searches, especially if they seem thorough.
Individual airline representatives won't discuss their security procedures in detail. But recent observations show that security searches vary from airline to airline and airport to airport.
At the United ticket counter in Atlanta, security agents wearing latex gloves placed the bags on a table and opened them. They felt around, pushing some items from one side of the bag to the other, removing a few items.
Cornelia and Juergen Bark of Germany were traveling through Atlanta to Orlando on Northwest Airlines. The search of their four bags lasted about 20 minutes.
"You had better allow yourself extra time to go through this and catch your flight," Cornelia Bark said. "But these security searches here still don't seem as extensive as those in Germany or other international airports."
She noted, for instance, that the guard in Atlanta did not sniff her lotion bottle or check her luggage for a false bottom, things German guards would have done.