Cherie Briante unwittingly left 35 rounds of ammunition in her carry-on luggage, but airport screeners in Fort Lauderdale didn't detect the bullets. They were discovered on her return trip from New York in October.
"If I got through with 35 rounds, what are other people getting through with?" asked Briante, 48, a saleswoman from Tamarac who owns a .38-caliber handgun for protection.
The Transportation Security Administration assumed responsibility for protecting U.S. air travel two years ago Tuesday in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. TSA promised tighter security, but critics say it has failed to make air travel substantially safer, primarily because of poor management and inadequate training of screeners.
As evidence, they point to the TSA's numerous failures to notice guns, knives and potential bombs, resulting in about 40 concourse evacuations a year.
Other security concerns: airliners remain vulnerable because ramp workers do not undergo thorough background checks and the cargo loaded onto passenger planes is not always screened for explosives.
"When I go to an airport, I see smoke and mirrors. I don't see security," said Charles Slepian, a former TWA security consultant. "We are probably no better off today than we were before 9-11."
TSA officials insist airline travel has never been safer.
"I don't dispute you can get a blade or a box cutter through the system," said James Loy, deputy secretary of the U.S. Homeland Security Department. But measures such as impregnable cockpit doors, armed sky marshals and pilots, explosive detection machines and bomb-sniffing dogs stack up as "as a challenge for any terrorist to deal with."
The TSA also works with 22 federal intelligence agencies, which have extensive lists of potential terrorists. Based on intelligence reports, several international flights into the United States were canceled during the holiday season and earlier this month.
A computer-assisted passenger prescreening program is expected to begin this summer, which would rely on public databases to identify dangerous travelers. In all, the TSA has spent about $11.7 billion to enhance air travel security.
Just the same, Loy said the agency's $5.3 billion budget for the upcoming year is not enough to develop the technology to make the nation's 429 commercial airports foolproof and improve customer service.
Loy concedes it is unlikely screeners will detect all dangerous items.
"The performance, I would love to see it be twice as good," he said. "And we are making every effort to make sure that occurs."
As the TSA struggles to gain public confidence, high-profile blunders have battered its image.
In October, college student Nathaniel Heatwole planted box cutters, a clay substance resembling plastic explosives and other potentially dangerous items on two Southwest Airlines jets to show that security measures were easy to circumnavigate. He even emailed his plans to the TSA five weeks beforehand.
The items were found in the planes' rear lavatories while parked in New Orleans and Houston, after Heatwole went through normal security.
Heatwole was charged in federal court with taking a dangerous item on board an aircraft, a felony that carries a potential 10-year prison term. He was released without bail, returned to classes at Guilford College, in Greensboro, N.C., and is awaiting further hearings.
"I think he deserves a medal," said Slepian, CEO of a New York risk-analysis firm, for exposing weaknesses in the system.
The same month, five undercover Homeland Security agents carried knives, a bomb and a gun through security at Logan International in Boston. Because two of the airliners hijacked on Sept. 11 took off from Logan, Massachusetts state Sen. Jarrett Barrios called those breaches "an embarrassment."
In September, Charles Mckinley, a former shipping clerk for a New York warehouse, hopped in a crate and shipped himself 1,500 miles from Brooklyn to Dallas on a cargo flight. He wasn't discovered until a delivery truck driver dropped off the crate at his parents' home and saw him crawl out.