I must have looked angry, frustrated, a little like death warmed over. I said nothing as I stuffed my pockets with all the keys and coins that had made the airport metal detector unhappy. But someone noticed.

"You feeling okay?" came a cheerful voice from the fog. I looked up to see a bubbly security screener--almost a contradiction in terms, given that the security checkpoint is nearly consistently an unpleasant flight experience. I protested sourly that airline travel can take it out of you.

"Now don't act out, sir, don't act out," she said. She practically ordered me to gaze out the huge windows at a bright spring sun washing over the runways at Dulles International Airport. She said she sees so many stressed, unhappy people like me that she wants to give us a boost: "I want them to have a happy flight, a safe flight."

My experience with security screener Vanessa Freeman came, oddly, at the beginning of an 18-flight odyssey across America to dig into the reality of airline service for the coach passenger. My job was to ignore the folks in the big seats up front and to report on the reality of steerage class. For more than three weeks, I rode planes, pushed my way through crowded airports, and talked to passengers, employees and top airline officials, all in an effort to get at the truth of what many believe to be a miserable experience. This conviction has triggered a flood of proposed laws, usually named by their sponsors as a "passenger bill of rights."

One thing became clear immediately at the beginning of the trip: Airline service has become such a crowded, strained experience that just arriving at an airport can raise stress levels.

Airline passengers today must stand in numerous lines, are crowded into the smallest possible seats the human anatomy can stand on mostly full airplanes, and sometimes sit on taxiways for minutes or hours because there of a lack of room either at the gate or in the air traffic control system. Bad weather in one part of the country can ripple across others to delay most of the nation.

"For the average businessman, the airport terminal is the most stressful event in his or her life," said Clark Onstad, a former airline executive and former chief counsel at the Federal Aviation Administration. "There's no difference between a cattle chute and a jetway. And cattle get better food than people."

Yet airline travel has also become the miracle of the masses. Millions of people yearly sit in aluminum tubes, surrounded by thousands of whirling parts that must all land at the same airport at the same moment, protected from minus-50-degree temperatures blasting past at 500 miles per hour, for historically cheap fares. And all but an amazingly small handful of them live to complain about it.

At the end of my 18-flight forced march, I knew why all the passenger bills of rights had attracted such support. The proposals are too simplistic and attempt to treat symptoms and misconceptions rather than core problems. But there are core problems.

Lessons Learned

Twenty days and 18 flights on the road as an observant passenger trying to get through the system taught me some lessons.

One of the sharpest is that passengers do not trust airlines. In fact, many frequent fliers assume the airline is lying to them, no matter what an airline employee says. The assumption has become so ingrained that many passengers are not even upset by it--they have developed little automatic tricks to verify airline statements.

Although passengers assume an airline is lying when things go wrong, when everything goes smoothly and flights arrive on time, they don't complain much about the crowding and lines, the small seats, and the meager food.

Tom Bowers, a 6-feet-4-inch investment broker from Kansas City, Mo., flies coach several times a week. He works hard to get aisle seats in exit rows to keep his knees from jamming into the passenger ahead of him, but he's resigned to the service. "I'd give them a fairly good score," he said. "I'm sympathetic toward the stewardesses because they have a lot of people to keep happy."

Even though angry people pass through airports and are becoming a growing problem, I found more people like Bowers than I found grumps.

Gate agents, for the most part, were pleasant, if obviously harried in many airports.

No gate agent or flight attendant I approached would talk for the record, citing company policy. A handful would talk if they were not identified. Most said they loved working for the airline but were growing tired of crowds and nasty passengers.

"I've been at this job 14 years and I've never seen it like this," said one gate agent, who added he'd rather work as a baggage handler, where he can avoid the stress. Passengers are getting "meaner" and less trustful, he said.

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, director of St. Louis airport operations for Trans World Airlines, said passengers have become more demanding and are more prone to go over the edge than just a few years ago. "Ten years ago, the [airport] police would tell you they would be lucky to be called once a month," she said. "Today they are called daily."

Hamm-Niebruegge said, contrary to conventional wisdom, business travelers are less of a problem than the infrequent leisure traveler.

"Usually the passenger with the cheapest ticket will demand the world," she said. "We brag too much. We set people's expectations too high."

Through it all, a friendly and helpful airline employee can make airline travel better. The best I saw on my odyssey was a Delta flight attendant on a flight from Atlanta to Dallas-Fort Worth who walked back to my row and said something to my obviously tired seatmate: "Mr. Vandergrif? Are you Mr. Vandergrif?" A little taken aback, he said yes. "Mr. Vandergrif, Jerry will pick you up at the airport. Don't rent a car." A little surprised, my seatmate said okay.

As we left the plane at DFW, she again said, "Now don't forget. Jerry's right out there."

He smiled. I smiled. Those two little acts made a pleasant flight for both of us.

Delay After Delay

To understand how crowded the aviation system is becoming, one need only take a flight from Dulles International Airport during the afternoon crunch, especially on Sundays.

On Sunday, May 23, I counted no fewer than seven different delay points before I could get to my seat on United Flight 277 to Chicago. First came the usual afternoon traffic jam on the airport access road. Then I had to allow one full bus from the remote parking lot to leave me behind. There was a line at the security checkpoint, then another delay waiting for a mobile lounge to leave for the midfield terminal, then long lines waiting to get a boarding pass, crowding up to the gate and standing in the jetway waiting for fellow passengers to creep aboard.

"Airports must give people choices that don't involve lines," said James Wilding, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Wilding said airport terminals were never designed to handle today's hub use patterns, in which dozens of planes descend on the airport in one flood to allow passengers to connect to other destinations. Not only is loading and unloading slow for today's mostly full aircraft, but also thousands of people must crush toward other gates.

The hub process offers people many choices, Wilding said, "but it carried with it the downside of giving airports the use pattern of a church."

David Plavin, president of the Airports Council International-North America, said the hub system means that the top 29 of the nation's 537 commercial airports now handle 67 percent of all boardings.

Rose Mary Loney, commissioner of aviation for the Chicago Airport System, said airports are having difficulty keeping up with the demand. She noted, for example, that Chicago added 27,000 parking spaces to O'Hare International Airport and "we can't keep up with the demand." Gate space is also a problem, she said.

Chicago is experimenting with ways to ease passengers through the airport, such as new express parking with debit cards for frequent users. Curbside check-in now is handling 40 percent of baggage, which helps avoid lines inside the terminal, and electronic ticketing allows an increasing number of passengers to go straight to the gate.

Then there's the matter of airport security.

"I can tell you that of all the complaints I receive, that ranks right up there at number one or number two," Loney said.

Security screeners are among the lowest-paid workers in the airline industry. The work can be boring, screeners often face conflict with angry passengers, and turnover is extremely high. Loney said the O'Hare security company regularly lost screeners to the airport newsstand because that job paid more.

One Woman's Plight

When I was changing planes in a very crowded Atlanta airport, one face stood out from the crowd. She appeared to be almost drained of emotion. I watched her talk to several Delta gate agents, who appeared sympathetic but obviously unable to help.

"It's just been a total nightmare," the woman, who identified herself as Rosalyn Johnson of Los Angeles, said as her young son flitted about with seemingly endless energy.

Johnson had done what so many of us do. She played the airline fare game. Everything she did was legal and within airline rules, but she got caught in a trap not of her own making. And her situation was growing more complicated by the minute.

She was to visit friends in Atlanta, but she said the round-trip tickets on Delta cost more than $700 each. However, she discovered a special fare to Birmingham, less than 150 miles away, for $218 each with a change in Atlanta. There are many reasons that fares may be so divergent between nearby cities, but it's a good bet this one had something to do with what's called "the Southwest effect." Low-fare Southwest flies to Birmingham but not Atlanta.

"To save $1,000 for two of us, yeah, it was worth it," she said. "But I wish now I'd paid the full fare."

The friend she was visiting in Atlanta had driven to Birmingham to pick her up and drive back to Atlanta. But she arrived in the middle of one of the worst weather delays to hit the South in years, and her flight to Birmingham had been canceled. She called her friend on a cellular phone to tell her to return to Atlanta, thinking she would simply get off there, where she intended to be anyway.

Wrong. First of all, under the fare rules, if she didn't go on to Birmingham, her whole ticket would be canceled, even though the airline had canceled her Birmingham flight. And the airline told her there was no way they could find her luggage in Atlanta. Worse, she did what the airlines tell you never to do, leaving medication in the checked bags.

No, she would have to fly on to Birmingham if she could get on a later flight. But now she could not raise her friend on the cell phone to tell her to return to Birmingham.

When my weather-delayed flight was called for boarding, I last saw Johnson sitting on a mechanical cart waiting for a Delta supervisor. "I hope the supervisor did something about that one," a Delta official said later. I never could find out what happened to her.

The airline fare structure has grown more and more complicated over the years as airlines have turned to fare sales, various levels of fares and daily--sometime several times daily--changes in fares in an effort to fill every possible seat. Squads of specialists sit at computer screens all day, carefully watching what the competition is doing. They also keep a close eye on how well specific flights are selling, sometimes looking months into the future.

With the help of various computer models, a specialist may decide to lower or raise fares for a certain number of seats on certain flights or groups of flights, depending on whether they are selling as expected. They have the power to open or close fare classes in an effort to either fill seats or squeeze more revenue from remaining seats.

Airlines, therefore, now have nearly perfect information on the competition and on their own flights, allowing fares to act as if the economic supply-and-demand curve were operating to perfection. For coach passengers, the choice of an airline begins with money, and they are willing to put up with rigid rules such as mandatory Saturday night stays.

"There's no loyalty that five bucks doesn't defeat," said Tom Bach, vice president for revenue management at Northwest Airlines.

But the last-minute business traveler must be willing to pay for the common airline practice of holding seats open until the last minute for those who must travel on short notice.

"I want to have enough seats for the passenger who is paying the most," said Pat Lilly, vice president for revenue management at TWA.

Lilly said passengers often accuse the airlines of gouging businesspeople to pay for low leisure fares. Instead, Lilly said, business travelers should realize that packing the air lanes with leisure travelers gives them more daily schedules.

"From an economist's viewpoint, it's a symbiotic relationship," he said.

Wish Lists

If I had been looking for a pure example of what the average frequent coach flier wants, I could not have done better than Kristin Sambor, an account executive for Elizabeth Arden Co. in Indianapolis, a seatmate on a Southwest flight from Kansas City to St. Louis.

"I want the most convenient flights at the most convenient times at the most effective prices," said Sambor, who flies several times a week.

Every survey done by or for the airline industry shows that the No. 1 wish of most airline passengers is to get where they want to go on time.

The J.D. Power-Frequent Flyer Magazine survey of airline satisfaction showed on-time performance contributing 26 percent to the satisfaction of a flight, followed by airport check-in at 15 percent and schedule and accommodations at 11 percent. In other words, a satisfying flight is one in which a passenger gets through the system fast.

Based on those surveys and focus groups, almost every airline in the country has an active on-time program.

"We were amazed when we did the research," said Lisbeth Mack, TWA's vice president for marketing and services. "In the 1990s, it's so phenomenally important."

That's why you're seeing numerous changes in boarding procedures at airline gates, and why the flight may leave without you if you're not at the gate a little early. Most airlines require passengers to check in at least 10 minutes before flight time, and flights sometimes push back from the gate a little early.

That is not all you will see in the future. Airlines are searching for ways to ease the crowding and inconvenience. Most are refurbishing their aircraft interiors.

The 32-inch seat pitch (the distance from seat back to seat back) is here to stay for economic reasons, but airlines are trying to make the seat cushions thinner to buy a little space. My experience is that these "thinline" seats are less comfortable, but new products, including a special seat foam developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, may add comfort.

Seat width is a little more flexible. Seats on some airliners can be an inch or two wider than the standard, including seats on the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A320. And that seat width can make a big difference to squeezed passengers.

Coltman of United, who carefully tracks passenger opinion, said United actually gets fewer complaints of all kinds from the A320 compared with other narrow-body planes. "I think that's the brightest thing Airbus did" in making its A320 fuselage slightly wider, Coltman said. "Basically it's a question of width."

The future includes other time-saving plans. Delta, for example, is planning to put a ticket office--and perhaps also check bags--in major stations on the MARTA subway system, which goes to the Atlanta airport. Vicki Escarra, Delta's executive vice president for customer service, said that if the Atlanta tests go well, the airline will attempt to spread the subway ticketing plan to other airports, including the Washington Metro system--for its stop at Reagan National Airport.

Escarra said Delta also will experiment with kiosks scattered throughout the airport to get boarding cards, helping to eliminate or spread out lines.

Several airlines, including TWA and Delta, are planning special automatic rebooking programs that would automatically put delayed passengers onto other connecting flights. Agents would simply hand the new boarding cards to passengers as they deplane, and no passenger would have to stand in line at a service counter unless the new arrangement was unacceptable.

None of these time-squeezing plans can do much unless the air traffic control system is modernized, allowing more planes to share the same airspace. The FAA has already wasted billions on failed modernization programs, but it now has 126 active projects underway totaling an estimated expenditure of $26.5 billion in the 1982-2004 period.

This includes new satellite-based navigation systems. The agency is also working on the first phase of its "free flight" program, which would allow more efficient and direct aircraft routing. And new more efficient "data link" communications systems are being developed.

The consequences of not squeezing more planes into the sky and adding new airport space are daunting.

The International Air Transport Association warned in late May that air traffic control delays were reaching a "crisis condition" in Europe.

The United States does not yet have a crisis. But the Air Transport Association estimates that air traffic will grow 54 percent in the next 12 years and the number of "severely congested" airports will rise from 25 today to 32 in a decade.

An American Airlines study estimated that even if the FAA successfully moves ahead with new air traffic control plans to pack more planes into the same airspace, delays will grow. The average time for aircraft waiting near the end of the runway to take off is now only about one minute. Averages can be misleading because the average mixes zero delays with some major delays at hub airports.

The American study estimates that under the current air traffic control system, the average delay will grow to 17 minutes by 2014. With all planned air traffic improvements, that average delay would be put off until 2020.

I can see crowding, delays and frustration growing even worse as the years go by. Planes are already almost as crowded as they can be, and more planes are coming. Few new airports or runways will be built, despite the need, because of environmental concerns and the protests of nearby residents who knew an airport was there when they moved in but who now are surprised at the noise.

Solutions are elusive. Most current activity is aimed at squeezing more capacity from the current system. But if nothing dramatic is done, there is one almost inevitable economic solution: Price airline travel so high that enough people will be discouraged from traveling. And the people's mass transit would once again become the province of the elite.

To Be Heard

If you have complaints or comments for the airlines, you can reach them at:

American Airlines

Customer Relations

P.O. Box 619612

Mail Drop 2400

Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, Tex. 75261-9612

Phone: 817-967-2000

Continental Airlines

Customer Relations

1600 Smith St.

Houston, Tex. 77002

Phone: 800-932-2732

Delta Airlines Customer Care

1010 Delta Blvd.

Hartsfield International Airport

Atlanta, Ga. 30320

Phone: 404-715-1450

Northwest/KLM Airlines Customer Relations

P.O. Box 11875, Dept. C6590

St. Paul, Minn. 55111-0875

Phone: 612-726-2111

Southwest Airlines

Customer Relations

P.O. Box 36611

Dallas, Tex. 75235-1611

Phone: 214-792-4000

TWA Customer Relations

1413 Olive St.

St. Louis, Mo. 63101

Phone: 314-589-3500

United Airlines

Customer Relations

P.O. Box 66100

Chicago, Ill. 60666

Phone: 847-700-4000

US Airways

Office of Consumer Affairs

P.O. Box 1501

Winston-Salem, N.C.

27102-1501

Phone: 336-661-0061

Cheaper . . .

And More Crowded

The average passenger fare declined substantially from 1977 to 1997 . . .

Cents per revenue passenger miles

1977: 13.71 cents

1997: 8.3 cents

. . . while the percentage of seats filled has increased.

Average passenger load

1977: 56%

1997: 69%

SOURCE: Roberts Roach & Associates

On-Time Rankings

Percentage of on-time arrivals (no more than 15 minutes after scheduled landing) for the year ended March 31.

Southwest 81.6%

Delta 80.1%

Continental 78.9%

TWA 78.8%

American 77.8%

US Airways 75.6%

United 74.5%

Northwest 71%

SOURCE: Department of Transportation