As of last week, most airlines that offered curbside baggage check-in before Sept. 11 had resumed the service. But as passenger numbers climb steadily toward normal, skycaps say they aren't experiencing a similar rebound.
Peggy Cormier is the exception when she shows up at Continental's curbside check-in about 8:30 a.m. Thursday. "Are we the only ones flying today?" asks the 68-year-old Rockville resident, heading to Houston for her grandson's baptism. "Without curbside check-in, I would go crazy," she says.
It might take a while for others to return to the habit.
"People probably don't realize they can check at the curb again," says Chris Williams, a skycap for Southwest Airlines.
And even those who do seem a bit wary, he says. "A lot of them still aren't sure if they'll need to go on to the ticket counter after they check their bags here." That isn't necessary, but rather than take the chance, he says, fliers head straight for the ticket counters.
Williams sees that sort of tentativeness all around among travelers. "They have a lot of questions," he says. "They're uncertain about where to go, what to do, what they can carry on. Some people have pulled out hair dryers and asked if they can take them on."
Baggage remains a sensitive issue.
Among the boarding passes being churned out by computer for the 20 or so passengers in a Delta Air Lines ticket line Wednesday night were several bearing the letters "SXL."
The bags of those ticketholders had to go through a more-intensive search at two folding tables - where Delta employees wearing bright green gloves rifled through their belongings in the middle of BWI's main concourse.
When some passengers bristled, the bag searchers told them that they had nothing to do with who was chosen for extra scrutiny. Officials won't say whether it's random or triggered by certain prompts: paying cash for a ticket, traveling one-way, making last-minute changes.
So, very much in public, every item came out of suitcases, briefcases, purses, computer bags - whether it was a bag to be checked or carried on board.
Some passengers, like Elizabeth Harwood of Annapolis, accepted the treatment with an apparently endless reserve of patience and good humor.
She arrived at the airport at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, two hours early for a flight to Arkansas to visit a sick relative. That flight, on a different airline, was canceled at the last minute, and she scrambled to rebook on Delta. By evening, as she prepared to board an 8:30 p.m. flight, she watched as her carefully packed bags were picked apart item by item.
She hadn't expected that, and said she was relieved that the woman conducting the search mustered some discretion. "She kept my underwear in their pouch," Harwood whispered.
Another searcher sifting through the suitcase of a different passenger had spilled items out over the table. Harwood rolled her eyes. "You could see everything."
She said she'll "be prepared next time. I'm going to drive."
Others passengers, like Jeannette Sanchez, fretted as their bags were gone through. The communications adviser for the World Health Organization from Geneva was between conferences and had an hour before departure. Unsure what other snags awaited, she feared she might miss her flight.
Besides an enormous hard-sided suitcase that she barely managed to lift onto the table, she carried a purse and a briefcase stuffed with conference materials and reports. As the searcher stacked them in a growing pile, the exercise became an impromptu purse-cleaning.
"Do you want these?" the Delta worker asked about a seemingly endless stream of crumpled tissues she was pulling from Sanchez's purse.
Passengers who bypass ticket counters and go through security to their gates can be targeted for similar searches of their carry-on luggage - even at their gate.
Experienced travelers say they are finding ways to cope.
On Thursday, one BWI traveler carrying boxes of binders for a presentation expected them to be opened and brought extra packing tape to reseal them.
In the past, Thomas Gannon carried a small wheeled suitcase onto his flights. Now he checks it, figuring that's less of a hassle. The 52-year-old Washington, D.C. resident also packs his keys in his carry-on bag and carries only enough change in his pocket to buy a newspaper.
David Burdette of Lutherville prepares more carefully and packs less: For a four-day trip, he brings three shirts and just one suit. It's simpler in case his bags are searched, he says.
In a wheelchair for 17 years, Burdette also adds time for finding a handicap parking space. Instead of being able to arrive at the airport 20 minutes ahead of time as he used to do, "I now have to spend hours preparing to travel."
But he doesn't mind that a bit: "We all have to modify our lifestyle, depending on what the times are," he says. "I'd rather be alive than dead."
Timing a trip