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Love and loss

Weddings, funerals and celebrations: Airports are passageways to life's biggest moments. Along with overstuffed bags, laptops and treasured souvenirs, travelers carry joy and heartache.

7:09 p.m.Here comes the bride

Sheila Payton barrels down I-85 in her silver Chevrolet Sonic.

Her daughter Britney just texted four words that sent her scrambling: "On the Plane Train."

Sheila is only days away from a moment she's dreamed of for decades.

"When the doctor said it was a girl," she says, "I immediately started praying for her mate. … And I remember as she started to grow and started to date and everything, I just kept praying."

Today, Sheila's home is full of invitations, goody bags and gifts. Her cell phone is chirping with calls and texts. And her mind is racing.

This weekend, Britney is marrying her fiancé, Philip. And their flight from Columbus, Ohio, just arrived.

More than 200 people are coming to the wedding, but Sheila can't stop thinking about the one person who won't be there.

Wendell, her husband of 27 years, died of a heart attack in March.

Sheila's trying to hold it together, but she's been tearing up all week.

She knows Wendell won't walk their daughter down the aisle.

He won't dance with her at the reception.

He won't see Britney wear the wedding dress she picked out after shopping at stores in three states.

This bittersweet blend of joy and heartache is all too common at the world's busiest airport, where moments of love and loss are carried like precious cargo and unwieldy baggage.

Knowing her daughter is doing what Wendell wanted helps Sheila keep going.

"One thing I know that he would want her to do is live," she says. "This is her life, a new chapter."

As Sheila waits for Britney and Philip to pick up their luggage, she prepares herself for the first thing she knows Britney will say ("I'm hungry") and the food she'll want to go out to eat (Italian).

Circling the airport, she thinks about how amazing her only daughter is.

How, at age 2, she toted a mini-suitcase and took her first flight alone to visit an aunt in Arizona.

How she's been fearless and loved traveling ever since.

How her straight A's got her a full ride from Spelman College.

How she joined the military to pay for medical school so her family wouldn't have to.

At the curb near baggage claim, Sheila squeals when she sees Britney and Philip coming.

"Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! Look at my babies!" she says, shouting so loudly about the wedding that strangers waiting nearby congratulate them.

Britney quickly tosses her luggage in the trunk and says she's ready to go.

She tells her mom she's starving, and that she wants to get Italian food.

Sheila smiles knowingly, hands Philip the car keys and gets into the back seat.

11:08 a.m.'This is our hour'

Cheri Anne Hummel's cheeks are rosy and her eyes are red. She's been awake since 3 a.m. for her early morning flight from Denver.

She pushes a stroller through the arrivals area of Atlanta's Domestic Terminal and carries her daughter, Ruby, in a BabyBjorn.

The baby was named for her great-grandmother, Ruby Dunn Black, who cradled her for the first time last week.

Now they're heading back to Cheri Anne's hometown of Thomaston, Georgia, this time for Black's funeral. It's tough to fly with a baby, but Cheri Anne says she wanted her daughter to be there with her.

Her eyes tear up as she remembers her grandmother: "She's just always been such an influential person in my life."

It's a sad time. But Cheri Anne's cousin, Kathryn Ozley, has been smiling for the past 30 minutes as she waits. As soon as she sees Cheri Anne, she sprints forward and throws her arms around her. They're more like sisters, she says, and she's looking forward to the drive from the airport back to Thomaston. It's a trek they've made together at least 10 times before.

"This is our hour," she says, "of nobody but me and her."

1:10 p.m.A chance encounter — or more?

As a waitress at Buffalo Wild Wings on Concourse D, Shontesa Simmons makes conversation with solo travelers while serving them food and drink.

"I've always liked to talk to people and make them feel good," Simmons says.

Simmons stayed two hours after her shift ended yesterday to talk to a guy going through a divorce. "He seemed sad at first but then he relaxed," she says.

They exchanged numbers when he left. He's supposed to call her in a couple of weeks to let her know if his divorce goes through.

Then what?

"We'll see," she says, smiling.

6:25 p.m.Returning to the Isle of Hope

Shannon Nevin laughs and plays with her two stuffed animals, a pink Peppa Pig and Rory the Tiger. She beats them against an empty chair.

The 4-year-old is the only one in her family full of energy after an overseas flight, and she's ready for the next leg, to Savannah, Georgia. The family is making a return trip to the Isle of Hope.

Hope is what Shannon's parents, Craig and Penny, had been holding out for.

In 2010, Penny learned she had a rare gastrointestinal cancer. After three operations and six invasive procedures, the 36-year-old was given the all-clear in spring 2012.

Three months later, she and Craig traveled from their home in the heart of England to the picturesque coastal Georgia community to get married.

This time they're celebrating their first anniversary and their good fortune.

"My favorite place in the world to be is the Isle of Hope," says Craig, 38.

Their first choice of wedding venue was a church on Tybee Island featured in the movie "The Last Song," about a teen romance and a parent's struggle with cancer. But the church had moved, so Penny's brother, who lives in the area, suggested a church in nearby Isle of Hope instead.

And "hope" really seemed to fit. Shannon was a flower girl; Penny's older daughter, Kayley, 20, was a bridesmaid. The whole family, including Penny's father, Donald, is along for the anniversary trip.

They played a song from the film "The Last Song" at their wedding, and Penny has brought along a copy of the novel.

It's a story that resonates as they make their way back to a cherished place.

11:51 a.m.Death is part of the job

They look like plain cardboard boxes and wooden crates, arranged in an alcove of Delta Air Lines' cargo facility, simply marked with a flight number and other data. Only their size gives them away: a little more than 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 2 feet high.

About the size of a body.

Human remains are part of the job.

"It's something we're extraordinarily sensitive to," says John Campbell, general manager of Delta's cargo operations.

He looks at the boxes neatly arranged on shelves. One box is smaller than the others; that's a child. Others may be members of the military. The Delta team takes pride in handling all cargo with care, but goes the extra mile for these shipments.

"I'm looking through here and I see three human remains shipments. And I do see one casket, so that casket needs to be somewhere just as important," says Campbell. "There may be a funeral somewhere where they're waiting on that."

8:30 a.m.Finding home, again

Jeannie got the looks and the personality in the family, like "a young Goldie Hawn," Dru says admiringly of her older sister. But Jeannie's bright personality began to dim exactly one year ago today with the death of her husband.

This morning Dru is on her way to bring her sister home.

"She's lonely and I'm lonely, too, for family," says Dru, 58. "But I can already hear the excitement in her voice."

After Jeannie's husband died, the sisters talked it over and decided that she should sell her home in Michigan and move in with Dru and her husband in Sun City Center, Florida.

It's only 8:30 a.m. and Dru is already one flight closer to meeting up with her sister. A slender woman with graying hair, small eyes and a kind face, Dru is dressed for comfort in a pair of pleated jeans, black sweatshirt and white sneakers. To help keep her going, she's got a tall black can of java-flavored Monster energy drink.

Soon, Dru will catch her connecting flight to Flint, Michigan.

Then, she'll drive three hours to St. Helen, where her sister is waiting for her, truck all loaded up, ready to go.

3:56 p.m.The bar where anything is possible

"When I say tomahawk, you say chop! Tomahawk!"




The call-and-response at Atlanta Braves All Star Grill on Concourse D is led by bar manager Saundra Cage, who's been serving and raising spirits in the airport for 15 years.

Between pours of wine, beer and frozen margaritas, she says she's played therapist, bonded with regulars and waited on stars. Hulk Hogan, Jane Fonda and the late Whitney Houston are the first to come to mind.

If a traveler arrives who has already had too much to drink, Cage might comp that person an order of fries. If a military service member takes a seat, she knows someone else will inevitably pick up the tab. If a customer is rude, she reminds herself that everyone has a story.

Cage once comforted a woman who was flying to visit her sick mother and comforted her again when the woman returned en route to bury her.

Then there was the traveler who sat nearby at Christmastime, broke up with his girlfriend by phone and told an unsuspecting customer that he'd give her a gift in exchange for a hug. One quick hug later, as the man walked out the door, the customer opened a box to find a pair of $5,000 Tiffany diamond earrings.

Cage smiles, remembering another two strangers whose encounter in the bar turned into something more. The man invited the woman to join him on a journey to Los Angeles, rather than catching her flight to New York. When she said yes, he bought her a ticket on the spot.

"Anything is possible here," Cage says.

No ticket to ride

Amid the travelers and workers are those people who don't belong — especially after midnight, when the airport gets quiet. Police and medics offer compassion along with a firm hand.

12 a.m.'Here we can help them'

Under the bright lights of a glass-and-chrome clock, on a black cushioned chair, Mi Ja Choi is sleeping, her two pieces of black luggage in front of her.

Atlanta police Sgt. Vito Wallace gently awakens her.

"Excuse me, ma'am," he says.

Mi sits up startled. She's wearing a pinstriped suit, red heels and pink nail polish. She has a black eye and bruises on the left side of her face.

"Please keep your bags close to you," Wallace says, picking up her carry-on and sliding it under her chair.

He doesn't know how Mi was injured, but officers have seen her at the airport before. She first showed up almost three weeks ago, and this is the second night in a row she's slept in the atrium of the Domestic Terminal.

The airport has strict rules about people other than employees or passengers using it for lodging.

At one time the airport had become the city's second-largest homeless shelter, officers say, with as many as 100 people sleeping here on any given night. The airport is easy for the homeless to reach – it's on Atlanta's MARTA transit system, the last stop on the southbound line.

But then the city started cracking down on the homeless at the airport. Officers carry copies of the relevant city code typed up on wallet-size paper. They hand it out to people they see who have no business at the airport.

"Lodging," the law says, "means to sleep or remain for a period of time in any public area of the airport for the purpose of sleeping ..."

But Wallace doesn't ask Mi to leave. He knows she is in some sort of trouble. She is carrying a South Korean passport and a Georgia driver's license. She thinks she may have been hurt in Concourse F, Wallace says. But she also says she might have been dreaming. Wallace says she may have dementia.

"We're not going to kick her out," he says. "If we do, she's going to become a victim."

Officers like Wallace patrol the airport with vigilance. Amid travelers and workers are those on the edge of society, who show up for other reasons: to find shelter for the night, escape from a rough situation or try to steal luggage.

The APD veteran has seen some crazy things in his three years as a supervisor at the airport. Like the homeless man who was off his meds and ran naked through baggage claim. Or another who defecated in the atrium.

He's also seen things that bring him down, even after two decades on the police force. He can't stand to see mothers bring young children here with nowhere else to go.

"It appears they are traveling, with their luggage and all," he says. "But they're not."

"To be honest, I'd rather they come here. At least here, we can help them."

12:30 a.m.A warning, and a $5 bill

At about 12:30, Sgt. Vito Wallace heads over to meet Officer Jeanet Franklin and her partner, Officer Willie Arnold, who patrol the public areas of the airport in the wee hours on their T3 electric standup vehicles. Atlanta police have about 18 of them at the airport, along with old-fashioned bikes.

He finds Arnold and Franklin by the US Airways ticketing counter in the North Terminal. It's 12:45 when Franklin's radio crackles.

"I got a 54," she says. That's the code for a suspicious person. The police think there's a tall white man operating as a luggage thief. That's not so unusual. There are professional thieves who hover around the arrivals area, waiting to make off with passengers' bags.

Soon, an announcement is made about the luggage carousels closing in five minutes. Franklin and Wallace walk toward the North Terminal baggage claim area. Franklin sees a man who looks disheveled and disoriented.

"The airport's about to go to sleep," Franklin tells him. "What's your name?"


"You got a MARTA card?"


"OK. We'll get you one in there."

Wallace takes out his wallet and hands Suleiman a $5 bill. "The last thing I want is for him to stay here," Wallace says.

With that, Suleiman is escorted to the MARTA platform for the northbound train. He's heading to the Bankhead station, on the subway system's northwest line.

"I have a funny feeling he's going to come back," Wallace says.

The police officers walk outside to the curb to look for the suspected baggage thief. During the day, cars are jammed bumper to bumper, but now there's not a single parked vehicle. It's a street sweeper's heaven.

At 1:05, Franklin escorts a suspect back to the airport precinct. He'd been hanging out at baggage claim for four nights and had changed his story about why he was at the airport.

"This is just a warning," she tells the man after taking his mug shot and entering his information into a thick white three-ringed binder that's a parade of similar suspects.

She tells him he will be arrested the next time he's picked up like this. Then the police accompany him back to the MARTA station.

The sign on the door is an indication the airport is about to go into shutdown mode. The last train departs at 1:18 a.m.

A man who only gives his name as Suleiman swipes a MARTA card and heads for the northbound train.

Officer Jeanet Franklin explains the binders keeping track of people who have been given warnings for criminal trespass.

1:54 p.m.Stolen cars — or just missing?

The airport isn't the scene of too many crimes, and those that occur aren't as violent as those that police see downtown. Occasionally serious crime creeps in — like the time in March when a gunman hijacked an airport shuttle bus and got shot at by police.

Usually, though, it looks more like the list of incidents detectives are reviewing today at their weekly meeting:

A grill ripped off a 1986 Buick, a stolen cell phone, a missing tablet, sunglasses taken from a backpack, a Kate Spade purse snatched from inside a suitcase.

"This week we have a new issue with auto theft," says Maj. Lane Hagin, who heads up the airport precinct for the Atlanta Police Department. The rumble of a passing MARTA train rattles his office in the Domestic Terminal.

So far, six cars have been reported stolen from a rental facility at the airport. Combine that with one reported last week, and it's not looking good.

It's still unclear, detectives say, whether someone is stealing the cars or it's an inventory problem with rental companies, which have to keep track of hundreds of cars each day. The detectives say they're setting up meetings to figure it out.

"I appreciate y'all," Hagin tells them.

Even with the help of some 1,800 security cameras, it's not an easy job for officers to patrol an airport where 58,000 people work and an average of 250,000 passengers travel through daily.

"It's a city out here," says Hagin.

One time, police searched for a woman's missing cat inside the airport for a couple of weeks.

Eventually they found the cat, Sgt. Azie Horne says, "somewhere down in baggage claim."

8:15 a.m.It gets busy after breakfast

Winston Bowers is hard at work at Fire Rescue Station 32.

He's got a skillet going with scrambled eggs, beans, peppers, onions and ground turkey.

In a saucepan – fire station size – he's got grits.

"You won't starve with me," he says. "This is about when we eat. After this, it gets busy."

Soon Bowers makes his announcement over the loudspeakers:

"Callin' all hawgs to the trough."

A dozen hungry men get their fill of his tasty breakfast burritos, washed down with syrupy cranberry juice. The paramedics haven't had time to clear the table when the call comes in at 8:51.

It's an eye injury.

Medic 3 — a 10-year-old ambulance — pulls out of the station.

Lt. Jimmy Garner, 41, and his crew – Sgt. Yappett Scott, 38, and Firefighter Daniel Johnson, 34 – wind around the runways as they head for the North Terminal.

As the ambulance pulls up to the curb, the paramedics hop out with a stretcher and hustle over to the police precinct. Atlanta police Sgt. Vito Wallace tells them he has a Korean woman complaining of a really bad headache. Her name is Mi Ja Choi, and she has a black eye.

Scott tries to ask her questions. He's told she doesn't speak English well but that she wants to go to a hospital. The paramedics check her heartbeat, her blood pressure.

"She's been here for a while," Wallace says. "She is 62 years old."

Wallace had seen her sleeping next to her luggage in the atrium at midnight. It's not the first time she's spent the night in the airport.

"Is she a Georgia resident?" Garner asks.

"She has Georgia credentials. She has other family members here but she won't give us that information. She doesn't want us to contact them. She told the interpreter that she was hit by a car. But I doubt that came from a car," Wallace says of the bruises on her face.

Garner decides to take her to Atlanta Medical South in the nearby city of East Point. It's the closest hospital. It's also where he was born. Repeated attempts to reach Mi or her family have been unsuccessful.

10:45 a.m.Medicine or social work?

After a stop at the hospital, the crew on Medic 3 returns to Fire Station 32, which sits next to the tarmac near Concourse A. But at 10:45, the paramedics are out the door again. An employee at a taxi booth is having chest pains.

Sometimes the crew has to treat people who feel ill because of the anxiety of flying. Sometimes, someone might even be having a heart attack.

The airport medics see higher-than-normal instances of deep-vein thrombosis (blood clots in the veins) and pulmonary embolism (blockage of arteries in the lungs) linked to long flights.

And they also have to respond to the silliest things — things that get travelers worked up.

"If they scratched a finger or stubbed a toe they think, 'Oh, well, we can call the medics,'" says Sgt. Yappett Scott. "Once a week someone challenges the escalator. The escalator remains undefeated."

One person even called because of wet feet.

"That's frustrating," says Lt. Jimmy Garner.

The guys on the crew often find themselves being social workers and customer service agents. A passenger gets sick. Garner has to treat him and then book him on the next flight or get him an airline or hotel voucher. Or sometimes Garner has to persuade a patient to pursue medical care. A lot of people want to forgo treatment so they can get on with the next leg of their journey, so they don't miss a flight.

Still, it's a tough job, especially at the airport, where the distinct possibility of a plane crash hangs heavy every day. From their station, Garner and his crew sit practically on the runway, watching jets take off and land all day long. When a tragedy like a plane crash happens anywhere, it's that much harder to stay focused.

In May, a shuttle bus crashed, injuring 16 people. "It was like trying to organize a plate of spaghetti," Garner says.

Scott finishes his thought. "But you can't let the scene overwhelm you."

Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Lt. Jimmy Garner walks onto the tarmac.

It's their city

They clean the carpets, floors and toilets. They serve you that much-needed drink between flights, and then release you to those who ferry you safely through the air. They make the airport work.

7:56 a.m.Miss Paulette's wild ride

The early morning light finds Paulette Carthon behind the wheel of her "ride" — a golf cart tricked out like a Cadillac. It's mostly cart but part Escalade, too, a three-seater with a canopy and custom wheel rims.

Her domain is the airport's economy parking lot; her mission is to shuttle people and their bags from their cars to the airport terminal.

"Nobody can do this but me," she chuckles, steering past a "Do Not Enter" sign.

Airports are filled with people on the go. But some people at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport never leave. They fetch you from your car. They greet you on the Plane Train. They scrub the carpets, floors and toilets — some even try to bring you the sunshine.

The airport is their city, and they make it work.

"Miss Paulette" is one of those people, and everybody who flies in and out of Atlanta seems to know her. The frenzied atmosphere of the airport doesn't rattle her.

"Don't you love that breeze?" she asks. She hums and sings as departing planes screech and drone overhead.

When it occasionally gets quiet, Miss Paulette's thoughts turn to her only son, Michael. She lost him to bone cancer in 2006. He was 8.

Work drives away her worry. The shuttle cart is her second job. She also operates a forklift at a Caterpillar plant.

On a busy day here, she'll give between 100 and 120 people a lift. Women travelers are more inclined to accept help than men, she says. Men have a hard time admitting it when they can't find their cars. "He's lost and you see he's lost but you ask him, and he says 'Oh, I've got it.'"

And grumpy people? They need a lift from Miss Paulette in more ways than one.

Like the ride, the smile and the banter are free.

5:05 a.m.The voice of Mr. Nice Guy

The day has barely started, but Paul Armbruster has something to say. In fact, he'll go ahead and say it every five minutes.

"Welcome to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Curbside passenger access is limited to active loading and drop-offs. No waiting. Any vehicle left unattended will be ticketed and towed immediately."

Armbruster is the recorded voice heard at curbside outside the Delta baggage claim. "I start out as Mr. Nice Guy," he told us. "And it ends with me threatening to tow your car."

The Decatur, Georgia, resident, who passed away this fall, did voice-over work for more than 30 years and has trained countless others in the profession. He provided his voice to more than 50 radio stations, did promos for various TV networks and can be heard on numerous business voice systems. Among his many commercial credits: Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut and Disney World.

His ongoing reach at Atlanta's airport extends beyond curbside. His voice can also be heard in baggage claim announcing flight delays. He used to be a voice in security, but said this summer, "I have not heard me there in a while."

8:17 a.m.Laughing through security

It's a slow morning at security. On many days, lines of sleepy business travelers snake all the way back toward the atrium. But today, the traffic is light – and so are the attitudes.

A young man in a T-shirt that says "trickster" struggles to free his license from his bulging wallet. The businessman behind him carries a black leather briefcase in one hand and a suit jacket in the other. A quarter tumbles from the pocket, bounces and rolls toward the TSA podium.

A bald officer peers over his reading glasses and smiles.

"Sorry. We can't take bribes," he jokes.

"And not from you either, young man," he says to a toddler who bumps past in an expensive stroller, waving a dollar in his hand.

The boy's hurried mom gently puts her hand on the officer's arm, leans in and confides: "I buy him all sorts of fancy toys, but he prefers the simple stuff like cash."

"As long as he doesn't start eating it, ma'am, it's not such a bad idea. Maybe that's a sign he'll become an investment banker, support you in your old age."

11:30 a.m.A place where knives are allowed

Mixologist Tiffanie Barriere is behind the bar at One Flew South on Concourse E, muddling a sugar cube with angostura bitters for an Old Fashioned cocktail.

These days, she says, flying has an edge. "Everybody needs a drink. It just calms you down."

One Flew South opened five years ago as the first fine-dining option at the world's busiest airport. Esquire magazine named it one of the best bars in America, while Food & Wine called it "Airport Food Worth Flying For."

Barriere says the restaurant has a loyal following. Some customers book a layover in Atlanta so they can dine here; others place carryout orders as soon as they are allowed to make calls after landing.

If travelers order a bottle of wine but aren't able to finish it, the restaurant will cork and bag it for them to enjoy later. If you can take your soda to go, why not a bottle of wine?

Executive chef Duane Nutter says operating a fine-dining establishment in an airport has its challenges. Kitchen space is limited, and knives must be tethered for security reasons.

Working at One Flew South "was the first time I ever cut myself in the thigh," Nutter says.

The restaurant became the first in the airport to offer customers metal cutlery. It had to be TSA-approved.

And "knife audits" happen regularly. They're carefully counted to make sure none goes missing.

A server at One Flew South heads to the kitchen.

A cook at One Flew South weighs fish on a scale in the kitchen.

1,515 concessions employees work within the airport's secure areas

$42,253,089 in total concession sales reported for August 2013, with more than half — $22,235,500 — from food and beverage

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Ashley Dulaney works behind the counter at Savannah's Candy Kitchen in Concourse B.

Capt. Mel Blowers prepares to pilot a Boeing 777 to Los Angeles. The 36-year Delta veteran has flown some of the airline's inaugural flights on routes including Los Angeles-Sydney, Atlanta-Johannesburg and Detroit-Hong Kong (now defunct). He's retiring in November.

7:38 a.m.She makes the sun shine

Step through the doors of the Delta Sky Club on Concourse F – and into serenity. This is where travelers with access find peace and comfort. It's a magical place, it seems, where babies do not cry.

Club members are greeted with hot showers, plush seats and a complimentary breakfast, not to mention a warm welcome from Kumok "Jennifer" Zajac, who's worked in the airline's frequent flier lounges for 14 years. She calls the club her second home.

"I see all my Diamonds and Platinums more than my husband."

Arrangements of pussy willow branches fill vases. A man sleeps, his feet propped up, on an outdoor deck. Near the exit are newspapers and magazines in French, Japanese, Spanish and more. Above the door, a line of Audemars Piguet clocks, each reportedly valued at $10,000, tells the time in Atlanta, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris and Mexico City.

Zajac leads visitors to the area offering showers and massages. "Some people stay 20, 30 minutes," she says. "Others never come out!"

Etched in glass along the hallway are quotes from historical figures, writers, artists. Says one, from 19th-century essayist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau: "You must not blame me if I do talk to the clouds."

Even if the Delta Sky Club is a kind of cloud nine, that doesn't mean the serenity is never broken.

Zajac tells the story of a drunk guy who got angry and decided to head-butt a $60,000 sliding door.

"He slammed his head like this," she says, imitating through laughter the man's absurd move that left him bloodied and the door kaput.

"When the businessmen are angry, I see them as big babies. You have to listen -­ and pamper them."

She and her co-workers "try to be sunshine" for those passing through – even when travelers turn stormy.

Delta flight attendants make their way to their next destination.

10:40 a.m.'Let's get it on'

"I've been really trying, baby/ Trying to hold back these feelings for so long/ And if you feel like I feel baby/ Come on, oh come on/ Let's get it on..."

It's a karaoke morning in the flight crew lounge of Southwest Airlines, and Lashondra Dukes is belting out a Marvin Gaye classic.

Dukes thrusts her left arm into the air as she mimics Gaye's soaring falsetto and sways her hips sensually to the slow juke-joint grind rhythm of the song. As she cradles the microphone in her right hand, giggling flight attendants cheer her on.

Just a few feet away, several airline pilots with crew cuts and clean-shaven faces sit silently in a row of black leather chairs, staring at ESPN's "Sports Center" with vacant expressions.

It's 10:40 a.m., and the day is ratcheting up for thousands of passengers streaming through the cavernous corridors above the lounge. But many of the people in this cramped break room tucked near an airport runway have been working since dawn.

It's a noisy scene, with ground crew members, captains, and flight attendants all milling about while checking The Weather Channel's Doppler radar. The place is even more chaotic this morning because Southwest — which merged with AirTran — transformed the lounge into a vendors' fair, complete with karaoke and merchants selling their wares from booths.

Renee Kleppel, an AirTran flight attendant, is getting ready for a noon flight to Baltimore. Kleppel left her home in Cleveland this morning and will be in the air most of the day.

With her perfectly coiffed brunette hair and fire-engine red lipstick, she looks like a model – and glows like a woman in love. Kleppel went on a cruise recently and fell in love with a man named Jim. The catch: He lives in Australia.

But that's not a problem for a flight attendant.

"Because I can travel, I'm getting married and moving to Australia in December," she says. "It doesn't seem far. The world shrinks, big time."

The distance between people also shrinks in her job. She raves about a recent trip she took to Miami Beach with some of her colleagues.

"We had a gay guy, a married black woman, me and a white pilot and a black pilot," she says. "You probably never would have put us together. But we went to Miami Beach, and we had the best time together. You just kind of make it happen."

12:43 p.m.This is not a place for the weak

It's lunchtime and the "family" has gathered in a break room near a runway. They're the ground crew for Southwest and AirTran.

They collapse into the seats at cafeteria-style tables with weary groans and slap hands while greeting one another.

Anthony Baty sits alone at a table. He is a broad-shouldered man with a trim goatee, short haircut and a military bearing.

"This is not a job for the weak and weary," he says, his Brooklyn accent still thick though he's worked in Atlanta for 13 years.

There are no Sky Clubs for ground crew members. They're outside in all conditions, lifting back-straining cargo and working amid moving airplanes and tons of equipment.

The men at the tables here are covered with grime, and sweat trickles down their faces. They may look like laborers, but they think like mathematicians.

When a commercial airliner taxis to a stop at the gate, it disgorges a motley collection of luggage. For the uninitiated, it all looks the same. But Baty sees a series of numbers.

"Weights and balances are really important in the airline industry," he says. Ground crews must estimate the approximate weight of each bag. Every time they load a plane, they have to make sure the weight is properly distributed.

What happens to a plane if the weight of the luggage is off?

Baty snorts in indignation. The prospect seems unthinkable – it would risk the plane's safety.

As far as Baty is concerned, the "family" makes Atlanta's airport work.

"These planes can't fly without these bags," he says. "We're at the heart of the operation. I take pride in that."

11:48 a.m.She just missed the hot pants

Cindy Crafton sets up a vendor's table and pulls out a chair in the Southwest Airlines flight crew lounge. She's a tanned woman with auburn hair and a bright smile and eyes that crinkle when she laughs.

Crafton is an AirTran flight attendant, but today she is an entrepreneur. She is selling Hip Klips, clips that attach minipurses to pants or bags. Like many of her colleagues, she works a second job to supplement her income. But flying is her first love. She's been a flight attendant for 38 years.

In the old days, Crafton says, her job was filled with glamour. The airport concourse was her runway — she loved sashaying through airports in fabulous outfits with her head held high.

She never threw away a uniform.

"I have a stash about yay big in my closet," she says, holding her hands about 2 feet apart. She ticks off the retro styles: pillbox hats, polyester leisure suits from the 1970s. "I missed the hot pants by six months," she says, smiling.

She also misses the way passengers used to dress.

"When I started flying, they put on their best Sunday clothes: hats, coats, ties. They respected us. We respected them. Now you have someone coming in with wife-beaters, flip-flops — and they're half-naked."

One day, a woman boarded the plane wearing a hideous outfit. "It looked like a pair of pajamas," Crafton says. "It was an older lady, and you could tell she was very proud. I said to her, 'I love your outfit. You look so nice today.' And she looked at her husband and said, 'See, I told you it didn't look like pajamas.'"

Crafton laughs. "It made her day. I try to pick a person I know won't get a compliment. 'You have a pretty smile; you have gorgeous eyes.' I give it to them."

4:45 p.m.A secret shop

You've seen it happen on airport concourses: captains and flight attendants briskly disappearing behind mysterious doors with keypad entries.

Behind one of those doors on Concourse A is a concrete staircase that leads down to the Flight Station.

It looks like any other airport souvenir shop until you take a closer look at the items for sale: captain's hats and shirts with various numbers of stripes, which can only be purchased by crew members who can show proof of rank; luggage tassels labeled "crew" with different airport codes; and books, jewelry and model airplanes made by airline staff and crew.

Delta flight attendant Jennifer Reason stops in to pick up a pair of stockings and a can opener before she boards a flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico. She needs the stockings because the pair she was wearing caught a run; the can opener is to help her pop open beverages during the flight, because after years of doing it without a tool, her hand hurts.

"Occupational hazard," she says, smiling, as she digs out her wallet from her bag.

12:19 p.m.He has to be on his game

Ron Levitz bounds into the hallway outside the AirTran flight lounge. A trim man with the build of a distance runner and a close-cropped haircut, Levitz radiates energy. The AirTran pilot once worked at assorted office jobs.

"I hated it," he says.

Flying is his first love. When he was a boy, he actually got goose bumps the first time he watched a plane take off. But translating his love into a career took years.

The competition for a pilot's job at a major airline is fierce. The flying schedule and benefits are good, Levitz says, and a pilot can make up to $200,000 a year.

There's also the sheer fun of flying.

Good pilots can't live in the moment – they have to anticipate what may happen in five minutes or 10.

"There's no flight that's the same," he says. "Every time I get in the airplane, it makes me think. It makes me evaluate. It keeps me on my toes. You're never bored. Every time you go to work, you're challenged."

Has he ever faced a close call? Been nervous in the cockpit?

"Absolutely," he says. "There's not a pilot who would tell you otherwise. There are times when you have a situation in the cockpit when something malfunctions or there's weather-related delays, like snow or fog. You have to really be on your game."

Pilots must be fit as well. They must pass rigorous medical exams every six months and take extensive flight simulator tests each year.

Levitz started flying at 19 and has no plans to stop.

"Most of the pilots out there have a passion for their job," he says. "If you don't love it, you couldn't do this job, because you're away from home a lot and there are so many things you have to put up with."

He wouldn't have it any other way.

"There are some days when I'm flying that I just look out of the window and I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world."

9:30 a.m.It takes 'T' to tango

With one hand in her mother's and the other clutching the handle of her pink Barbie suitcase, a little girl walks off the train toward the T gates, parroting what she's just heard.

"T as in tango," she says, and then skips. "T as in tango."

Announcements on the Plane Train stick with travelers being whisked from stop to stop. For some, including three young women, they spark giggles. The recent college graduates can't contain themselves after hearing: "The next stop is for B gates. B as in bravo."

"B as in bootylicious!" they squeal in response.

A woman whispers to the man beside her, "E as in echo," as she leans in for a kiss.

A young boy crinkles his brow in puzzlement before saying, "F as in foxtrot?"

Being the voice of the airport subway known as the Plane Train can be surreal. Just ask Sharon Feingold, who now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, but hears herself whenever she travels through her hometown airport.

She can be heard on the Plane Train as well as the SkyTrain, which travels outside the airport to hotels, a rental car center and a convention center. Feingold, who's in her mid-30s, was a student of the late Paul Armbruster, whose voice politely threatens to tow people's cars outside Delta baggage claim.

The Plane Train gig, more than any she's had, earns her attention in unlikely places.

"I was at a geek convention," she says, "and people asked for autographs because of this train."

2 a.m.In baggage claim, pride and precision

William Talton straps on a vacuum that looks like the backpack Bill Murray wore in "Ghostbusters."

"Who you gonna call?" he jokes, invoking the movie's famous line.

The reference is appropriate; the baggage claim area looks like a ghost town. It's 2 a.m., and the airport is virtually deserted except for the night cleaning crew.

A woman vacuums behind the airline ticketing counters and a two-person crew changes light bulbs in fixtures hanging 20 feet overhead. Talton is responsible for keeping 19 baggage carousels clean.

He uses a chisel to free luggage tags, candy wrappers and other debris stuck in the carousel's blades. He sprays a liquid graffiti remover on each blade and uses a mop to clean up. The citrus smell permeates the vast baggage claim area.

Talton details Carousel No. 3 with the precision of a fine jeweler. Every Thursday, airport officials conduct an inspection. He's never failed one.

"I used to work as a customer service supervisor at Sprint, you know," he says. "They outsourced my job to India."

That was five years ago, as the recession took hold. Talton lost his house, his car.

He took the airport job to avoid homelessness.

"I did this out of desperation."

He says he makes $7.70 an hour. That's what he made as a 14-year-old boy.

"I couldn't afford to let pride get in the way," he says and goes back to his mopping.

The first flight arrives in two hours.

560 employees work to keep the airport clean

57.75 tons of garbage, on average, are collected each day

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Kelley Gregory takes a break from cleaning floors before sunrise.

2:13 a.m.The artist at work

The Southwest baggage claim area looks like an abandoned movie set. No one is behind the ticket counter either, and the curbside traffic outside has evaporated.

The whir of a floor buffer breaks the silence.

Bobby Williams methodically pushes a propane burnisher over the linoleum floor near the entrance to the atrium. His body is there, but his mind is on his faith and dreams.

Williams wants to be somewhere else five years from now. He is a soft-spoken man with plump cheeks.

"I would like to own my own cleaning service," he says. "I just have a passion for what I do. I love to do floors. I love to see them shine."

Williams calls himself a floor tech, and he's only been on the job for six months. He's still getting accustomed to sleeping during the day and missing time with his 15-year-old son, Bobby Jr.

He sees himself as an artist, and the airport floor is his canvas. Some visitors compliment his work; others walk by while he's there and treat him with indifference.

Williams' faith carries him through the grind. On his breaks, he watches Christian movies on his smartphone. He attends World Changers Church International, a megachurch in suburban Atlanta. He's a fan of the church's pastor, Creflo Dollar.

"He's down to earth," Williams says of Dollar. "He hits home with a lot of things I need to hear. When I go, it's like he's having a conversation with me."

Williams says his faith encourages him to believe in his dream.

"It gives me hope that everything is going to come to fruition and teaches me to believe in things higher than myself," Williams says. "If I'm having a bad day, I just say it's going to be better. The sun will rise tomorrow, and everything will pass."

And one day, Williams will paint his own canvas.

Maintenance worker Frank Edmondson holds the various keys he needs to do his job.

3:52 a.m.'I just love doing bathrooms'

Anita Daniel slips on a pair of goggles, grapples with the hose of a vacuum machine and wheels it into an empty men's bathroom on Concourse T. She flips the switch, and the machine rumbles to life, sounding like a tugboat's foghorn.

Daniel has been cleaning bathrooms at the airport for seven years. It's 3:52 a.m. and she's deep into her 10:45 p.m. to 6:45 a.m. shift.

"I just love doing bathrooms, '' she says. " I really do. It's peaceful. I'm here by myself."

Even when she is surrounded by travelers, Daniel can feel alone. Men will often ignore her cleaning signs and barge into the bathroom while she's there.

"They can be very disrespectful," she says. "I'm a lady. And I clean men's bathrooms. I don't have a choice because that's my job. They will walk in on me, and see me and go right on in and use the bathroom. No respect. And then they look at you like you're invading their privacy."

She has a ritual to channel her anger. She tells the rude men what she thinks of them – after they leave the bathroom.

"I just do it in private," she says. "I just mumble to myself."

She doesn't have those problems with women.

"Some of the nicest people are women," Daniel says. "They'll see me working and tell me how nice a job I'm doing and thank me for keeping everything clean. That makes you feel good, for someone to compliment you on your work."

Daniel's mother, Louise, also worked for a cleaning service and taught her to do her best. "It can get nasty," she says, "but I'm used to it. I used to be a weak-stomach person but once I started cleaning bathrooms, that went away."

The work may not be glamorous, but Daniel says there is dignity in all work.

"I just don't understand people who don't work," she says. "How do you live as a human being and don't work? I've been working since I was 18, and now I'm 52. I'm a hard-working person."

And a lady.

3:15 p.m.God's men make the rounds

Frank Colladay wears a neon-yellow and orange vest over his tweed jacket. On the back, it says Chaplain. At 3:15 p.m., he begins a long walk to Concourse D.

Here he plays the role of good Samaritan, looking for travelers in distress. He has to decide when to ask if someone needs help. Sometimes, it's a hard call. He doesn't want to intrude.

On this day, he approaches a passenger who looks lost. She's trying to figure out how to get to gate D23 to catch a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to Rome.

"Come on," he says, "follow me."

Colladay is retired from the ministry, though he's still a pastor emeritus at Dahlonega Presbyterian Church, about 90 minutes north of the airport. Every Wednesday, he drives down to help out in the airport chaplain's office.

The chief chaplain, Chester Cook, says the work isn't so much about faith as it is about customer service.

A few weeks ago, Cook helped buy Greyhound tickets for four young friends whose car got impounded. Another time a doctor came in to see him.

"I'm a rich man," he told Cook, "but my wallet got stolen, and I need $38 to get my car out of the parking lot."

Others have more serious problems. Maybe they are on their way to a funeral. Or seeking shelter at the airport because of domestic violence.

For the 58,000 airport employees, the small interfaith chapel in the domestic atrium is their church. Just as soldiers feel better when they see a chaplain in the foxhole, airport employees and passengers find the chapel to be a refuge in a place with plenty of opportunity for anxiety.

"I saw an elderly woman in front of an AirTran counter crying once," Cook says. "She was afraid of the process of flying."

Earlier in the summer, he dealt with the suicide of a passenger in the International Terminal. His office is next to the USO, and he often speaks with soldiers suffering from combat stress.

"We're just scratching the surface, though," Cook says. "We're helping 10 or 15 people a day. There are 150 more that we didn't help. The airport is so big."

In Colladay's first shift at the airport, he helped a woman who was returning to her native China to renew her passport. He had to navigate U.S., Chinese and Delta Air Lines bureaucracies.

"It was enough to make this chaplain cuss."

8:12 p.m.He's cursed himself

He tells people to keep their eyes on their luggage. He nags them about the boarding sequence. He orders them to pick up their tired bones and schlep to a different gate.

"All that annoying stuff – well, that's me," says Tony Messano, of Alpharetta, Georgia, whose voice can be heard in Delta terminals across the globe.

It's 8:12 p.m., and travelers to Buenos Aires are being treated to a gate announcement by Messano.

"Flight 101 with service to Buenos Aires," his recorded voice tells everyone, is "departing concourse E as in echo, gate 8."

Messano has been doing voice-over work for 25 years. He's recorded numbers, the names of destinations, and gate letters so that any variation can be pieced together on a computer to make the necessary announcements.

He says he's cursed himself when his voice told him to move for a gate change. And he's gotten the stink eye from his own wife. They were in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, sitting at their gate having a nice conversation, when his voice kept butting in.

"She gives me a glare like 'Stop interrupting me,'" he says. "And I'm like 'Well, it's me, but it's not me.'"

These days his voice is being tested for use with similar technology in the New York City subway system.

If he lands that job, he says, "I imagine it'll involve a lot of cursing and screaming at the top of my lungs instead of the gentle prodding I do for Delta."

Messano, though, isn't the only one making announcements in Delta terminals. At alternate gates, a female voice addresses travelers.

It belongs to Susan Bennett of Sandy Springs, Georgia, who used to be the voice of the Plane Train. She got into this work in the 1970s by accident. She was a jingle singer, showed up for a job, and the voice-over talent was a no-show. Bennett, who still sings and is in a band, was asked to fill in.

Now her voice can be heard at Delta gates worldwide. She can also be heard in commercials, on GPS systems and on company phone systems.

Bennett's biggest claim to fame? In America, she is the original voice of Siri, the Apple iPhone's virtual personal assistant. CNN revealed Bennett's alter ego earlier this fall.

"I end up talking to myself quite a lot," she says.

Does she ever yell at herself?

"No," she answers. "I don't want to hurt my feelings."

Food service employee Patrick Chapman sets up a table in the international terminal.

Juanita Headspeth delivers newspapers to airport shops every morning.

9:45 p.m.Big Brother knows where you parked

It's the end of a long day for Laura Wilt – yes, the last name is indeed spelled "like a dying flower" – and now she's in a panic. She can't find her parking ticket and has no idea where she left her car early this morning.

Her mother suffered a stroke and she rushed down to Tampa, Florida, to talk to the doctors. Now all she wants to do is drive home to Dallas in suburban Paulding County.

Wilt checks the pockets of her royal blue skinny jeans.


She looks inside her wallet.


Checks the compartments of her carry-on.


Wilt is getting worried when help arrives on a Segway. The driver is Timothy J. Watkins, operations manager for courtesy vans and shuttle carts. He and two dozen employees cruise around helping people who've lost their parking stubs. In a place with more than 30,000 spaces, that happens about 400 times a month. They also give about 500 jump-starts a month.

Watkins has a volley of questions for Wilt: When did she come in? What highway did she take? What lot did she park in? Does she remember her car tag number?

There is a method to this madness. The airport has a system for steering cars into the long-term parking A, B and C lots. So knowing what day Wilt arrived could offer a clue. So can the cameras that photograph the license plate of every car that enters the lots. Trucks with cameras also drive around every night and photograph the tags on parked cars. So if you have your registration or know your tag number, your car can be found in the computer.

Wilt makes one more pass through her possessions. She dumps out the contents of two bags.

Oh, wait, snap! Wilt unzips a side pocket in her purse and sure enough, there it is: a pink ticket.

Shuttle bus driver Ron Dellingham takes her straight to the A lot.

Her gray Sonata is parked in section 19A.

Laura Wilt is on her way home.

Hope and suspense

From awkward farewells to heartfelt hellos, departures and arrivals create little bursts of fanfare. And in Atlanta, where 70% of travelers are catching connecting flights to their final destinations, time-killing strategies are many and varied. Airport spa or whiskey shots, anyone?

2:20 p.m.Babies, chainsaws and the mile-high club

11:59 p.m.A sign of love

John Mann slumps next to a trash can in the back of the roped-off arrivals area, fiddling with his cell phone. Traffic flowed better than expected, and now he's stuck with time to kill, waiting with a bright orange poster on his lap.

"Welcome Home Susie," it says, with "I ♥ U!" scribbled in one corner.

John first met Susie when they were 9 years old, performing in a school production of "Alice in Wonderland."

She was Alice. He was the Cheshire Cat.

Decades later and a continent apart, they reconnected on Facebook. They started talking every night, then visiting each other on weekends. She moved to Seattle, where he lived. He proposed to her on Super Bowl Sunday in 2010, hanging a sign over the fireplace that said "Will You Marry Me?" She said yes.

They're married now, and they haven't been apart long. Susie's been away from their suburban Atlanta home for just a few days, helping her mom move to Houston. But John knows it's been a tough week, and he wants to make her smile.

This sort of moment plays out at all hours in the world's busiest airport. Amid the rush, the chaos, the flow of foot traffic, there are anticipated reunions, dreaded farewells and human exchanges — big and small — while people wait.

Susie had always wanted someone to hold up a sign for her at the airport. But John never had the courage. She is a trained singer and actress, the one who really knows how to shine onstage. He is a software developer — more of a behind-the-scenes guy. But yesterday, John decided he'd put himself out there. A kit of glitter and glue sticks and cut-out letters later, here he is.

"Making it was easy," he says, "but walking through the airport with it wasn't."

People stare. He avoids the glances and looks down at his phone.

Around 11:45 p.m., he checks online and sees that Southwest Flight 51 has landed. He springs into position, planting himself at the front of the arrivals waiting area. He props up the sign with one hand and stares intently at the escalators that bring throngs of passengers to baggage claim daily.

It's nearly midnight, though, and the escalators – earlier packed with people – now roll up mostly empty. There's a man in a business suit, a couple who look lost, but no sign of Susie.

John looks at his phone again, then gazes off in the distance, toward an empty gift shop.

Suddenly a sea of people surges up the escalators.

Susie steps off and wanders to the right, scanning the scattered clumps of people in front of her. Seeing no familiar faces, she turns to the left, walking a few steps forward.

The bright orange sign catches her eye, and she stops in her tracks. John is looking the other way.

But in a matter of seconds, their eyes meet. John flashes a Cheshire Cat grin. He stands up, looking proud. She walks toward him, beaming.

"I made your sign," he says. "I love you."

5:49 p.m.Waiting in style

Having missed her connection to Omaha, Nebraska, Joanne Ford lets go of what she can't control and sinks into a spa chair. The business traveler, who works in health care IT, is on the road every week. This day started at 8:30 a.m. in Rochester, New York, and she has hours to go before she sleeps.

But like the nearby businessman whose face is planted in a massage chair, she's learned to make the best of her often-extended layovers. Getting manicures and pedicures at XpresSpa is part of the drill. It's not like she has time to pamper herself, after all, when she's home in Honey Creek, Iowa. Why not do it in the airport?

Colin Lam, who's filing Ford's nails, has worked at this shop on Concourse A for more than a year and a half. He says he often plays psychiatrist, talking to customers about all sorts of issues – job woes, relationship snafus, you name it. Lighter banter, especially given the people-watching the airport offers, often turns to fashion critiques.

"I just saw one today and said, 'Wow,'" says Ford, shaking her head at the memory of the traveler in 6-inch heels and a tight cougar-skin dress. "Then she stood up and I said, 'Wow.' And then she fell out and I said, 'Wow!'"

Another traveler, getting his feet rubbed one seat over, leans back and smiles. A woman fully reclined in a chair around the corner, getting her temples massaged, appears to be in a blissed-out slumber.

"People come in in a sour mood, and once they leave their whole disposition has changed," Lam says. "We love bad weather."

7:45 p.m.Welcome home, Holly

Planted in the arrivals lobby, a banner and loved ones await Holly Houston, 31. For a year and a half she's been in Brisbane, Australia, on a Christian mission with Operation Mobilization.

Her mother's camera phone is poised, ready to capture the daughter she's missed as she comes up and off the escalator to see them. Next to her parents are friends from childhood, high school, church and college. All of them crane their necks and hold their breath, scanning the faces of travelers as they stream in. Finally, they release a collective squeal as she runs into their arms.

12:04 a.m.First-time jitters

Kunyu Harun Henu is slumped over in a blue padded seat, 8,000 miles from home. He started flying 25 hours ago — and still has another day to go.

The journey might unsettle any traveler. But for Henu, a 39-year-old pastor from Kiserian, Kenya, the problem is nerves. This is his first time flying.

The plane's trembling during takeoff is what first got him. The man sitting next to him sensed his fear. This is normal, he told Henu. Planes rattle during takeoff, and sometimes they hit turbulence in the air.

"After he explained, I was OK," Henu says.

His plan was to fly from Nairobi to London, then Atlanta, then St. Louis before finally heading to Missouri State University to start his master's degree in religious studies. The whole trip was supposed to take about a day.

But after a nine-hour layover in London, a problem with a passenger forced a two-hour delay on the tarmac. And that delay caused Henu to miss his connecting flight in Atlanta to St. Louis.

That's why he finds himself almost alone in the middle of the night in Atlanta's massive new International Terminal. He can't fly to Missouri for another eight hours.

Other travelers might have grown agitated by the snafus. Not Henu.

"No airline is immune to problems," he says. "In life, people expect everything to be perfect. That's human nature. When there's a problem, they want someone to blame. But things happen."

Granted, Henu is exhausted and barely able to lift his eyelids. But he refuses to sleep. Who knows what could happen to his belongings — one big suitcase full of clothes and a smaller suitcase packed with books?

So the first-time flier sits and waits, making small talk with the occasional passer-by.

9:15 a.m.Happy any hour

There are many ways to drive a person to drink at the airport — at any hour of the day. But under Georgia law, the person can only buy that drink after 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and after noon on Sundays.

"People are sitting here before 9 a.m. just waiting," says Atlanta Hawks Bar & Grill bartender Brooke Hunnings.

It's 9:15 a.m. and a man and his brother are having breakfast. Another man has already bellied up to the bar for a Bloody Mary.

Sisters from Bogota, Colombia, wait for their connecting flight to visit family in Canada after spending three hours in customs.

10:20 a.m.Headed north, armed with tradition

Chad Spicer is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of wearing cowboy boots, a hefty belt buckle and silver jewelry through airport security.

"I just take it all off and shove everything in a bag beforehand. But I usually need four to five trays to get everything through," he says, laughing.

He’s also the kind of guy who looks completely at home sitting in a bank of empty chairs at gate C21, wearing a pair of dark aviator sunglasses while munching on a foil-wrapped Chick-fil-A breakfast sandwich.

An artist and graphic designer, Spicer splits his time between New Orleans and a farm just over the state line in Mississippi, where several other artists live and work on their own projects.

Each piece of art he wears has a story.

His belt buckle bears a javelina in relief, recalling his childhood pastime of boar hunting. It’s a family tradition on his father's side, which includes Choctaw and Cherokee roots.

An ex-girlfriend made him the silver ring with a druse meteorite stone. He lost it once at New York's LaGuardia airport, but someone turned it in. When he called to inquire about it, the person on the phone said he knew "someone was going to want it back," and sent it to him free of charge.

His older brother made the brown and white bracelet from carved wood and bird bones. They're close, and now that his brother's children have left for college he has more time to spend with Spicer, which is what brings him to Atlanta today.

He's connecting through Hartsfield-Jackson from New Orleans on his way to Minneapolis, where his brother lives. They've got a big hunting and fishing trip planned in northern Minnesota up toward Canada. They'll use every scrap of whatever they kill, just the way they did growing up in rural Louisiana.

2:15 p.m.Flight-ready faces

It's that time of the day when it's relatively slow at the MAC cosmetics store in the new International Terminal, allowing employees a chance to try out new products and hone their skills. Today, they're practicing layering effects with new eye shadow colors.

Most of the time, people wander in to kill time without anything particular in mind, says the store manager, who declines to give her name, citing company policy. Other times, people pick up items they forgot.

Do they get a lot of business? "Yes," she says. "You'd be surprised."

6:15 p.m.Tending the flock

Tim Ferrill, 33, gingerly navigates his way through the crowded gate at A29. He's on crutches, his right leg in a brace. The torn ACL — courtesy of a soccer game played with his five brothers in Birmingham, Alabama, where his family was just visiting — makes this day's journey more complicated, especially for his 28-year-old wife, Jodi. They're awaiting their second flight of the day, this one to Denver, and they are far from alone.

In the area along the wall that the family's claimed, Jodi's doling out single French fries to their five young children, with the fluidity and calm instincts of a mother bird. All under age 8, the two youngest sit in the bulky stroller, the one she loads up with all the stuff Tim can't carry. Small backpacks are scattered about, the responsibility of the older three kids, who are accustomed to pitching in.

"I know how to fold shirts, pants and shorts," boasts Seth, 4, before spinning around and squawking for another fry.

With such a large brood, the Ferrills have a system. They face challenges one at a time, pack light and "pray a lot," says Jodi.

"One thing that makes this easier is we home-school," adds Tim. "The kids are used to being together."

They've been on the road for nearly three weeks now. Once they arrive in Denver, they'll stay with friends for two days before road-tripping back home to Southern California.

"We've got a 15-passenger van," Tim says. "Room to grow."

2:20 a.m.For the love of a son

Denise Sardinha wasn't supposed to be here, sitting all alone in front of gate F10 in the middle of the night.

She should be asleep in her San Francisco home, getting ready to send her 7-year-old son, David, to his first day of school in the morning. Instead, she is 2,400 miles away, waiting to pick up her boy after a booking mishap sent her scrambling across the country.

"He was visiting his dad in the middle part of Brazil," says Sardinha, who is also Brazilian. "Because he's 7, he's not supposed to have a connecting flight."

Sardinha thought she had resolved that problem by paying a $100 unaccompanied minor fee, but after she booked she found out that Delta won't allow connecting flights for children under the age of 8 traveling alone.

So she had to take two days off work from her housecleaning business and jump on a four-hour flight to Atlanta to meet her son and accompany him to San Francisco. David, meanwhile, had to miss his previously scheduled flight and wait another day.

"I wasn't happy at all. He starts school tomorrow," Sardinha says. "Then I felt better flying with him to San Francisco because that made him feel more secure."

She's been sitting at the Atlanta airport for five hours, with another three hours to go until she sees her son. Before this trip, the longest she'd gone without being with him is two days. Now, it's been two months.

She passes the time watching clips of the recent MTV Video Music Awards on her laptop. And behind the weary look on her face is the excitement of a mother who can't wait to embrace her little boy.

10:29 a.m.Father, son and an awkward bro-hug

The middle-aged man wears a Columbia T-shirt, a shoutout to the university in New York. He looks at his son, who's heading off to college.

The tall young man with the full head of curly hair wears a preppy collared shirt – decidedly not like his dad's. He looks at his father, a little unsure of what will come next.

The father leans in and gives his son an awkward bro-hug. The young man turns bright red. Extended family stands around watching while his mother stands off to the side.

"You'll do well son," an older aunt says to him. "We know you will, we're proud of you," she calls after him as the young man snakes his way through the maze toward the security checkpoint. He tries not to look back.

7:35 p.m.The lure of those little noses

Four grandsons await the arrival of Gayle and JB Franklin. A fifth grandbaby – a girl – is on the way. The Franklins' son and daughter-in-law and their kids, all under 7, live in London.

In a few hours, the couple from Lilburn, Georgia, and their "six big honking suitcases," filled mostly with clothes for the children, will start their trip across the pond.

Gayle and JB, who are in their late 50s, will visit with family in London, then fly to Italy, then head back to London before coming home. They figured three weeks straight would be too long to stay with their son's family.

"Like fish, we'd start to stink," says Gayle.

But right now, anticipation is building.

She smiles broadly, thinking about their arrival and "all those little noses pressed against the third-floor window."

11:15 a.m.Compassion — and a shared smoke

Travel often brings people together in ways they wish they hadn't experienced. But at least Chiara James now knows that airline employees can be helpful.

She had to miss her flight to find out. The single mother from Atlanta is traveling with her 7-month-old daughter and elderly mother. A necessary diaper change for the little one meant they arrived at gate D1A for an AirTran flight to Detroit moments after the door closed. And that door, despite her pleas, stayed closed.

The gate agent whose job is to watch the plane push back from the jetway learned her story after he returned to the terminal. What he heard frustrated him.

"They pick and choose who they want to let on," says the agent, a contractor for Southwest and AirTran who didn't want his name used. "It frustrates me because it happens all the time."

He rebooked James and her family on the next flight to Detroit at 3:15 p.m. with assigned seats, not just on the standby list.

Then, he escorted the family to Concourse C and joined James in the smoking lounge while her mother and daughter waited outside.

"It's just stressful," James says. "But it's good to know some people care and are willing to help you."

9:12 p.m.Three-shot friends

Poor Brad. The guy's been sitting in Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar for five hours. Five hours!

The New Yorker missed his connection to Indianapolis. With hours to kill, this spot in Concourse D seems as good as any. Earlier, it served as a makeshift office for a few hours, but he went off the clock. That's when the boyfriend-girlfriend team of Zach Sperry and Kelsey Smith walked in. They came to grab a quick bite and a drink before heading off to Florida, but then Brad happened.

"We've had three shots together!" Sperry announces from a corner of the bar. "That's what brings people together."

"We're new best friends!" Brad says, as they all laugh. "They've only been here an hour and a half. I've been taking attendance since I've been here so long."

9:30 p.m.Heaven must wait

As passengers pour off the escalators into the arrivals lobby during a busy night-time rush, Nar Lungali leans on an empty luggage cart, picks up his phone and starts dialing.

"She is not coming today," he says, talking with one family member after another.

The case aide waiting with him from the International Rescue Committee just told him his older sister's flight from Chicago was canceled.

The hot meal waiting for her in nearby Clarkston, known to some as the Ellis Island of Georgia because of the large number of refugees who land there, will have to wait. Fried chicken and rice. "Delicious, spicy food," he says — the kind of meal that will make his sister feel at home, even more than 8,000 miles away from their native Bhutan.

It was only two days ago that she called from Kathmandu and told him she was moving from Nepal to America with her husband and two sons.

"She was so excited," he says. He could hear it in her voice.

He's excited, too. He hasn't seen her in more than two years. He can't wait to talk to her about how old friends left behind in the Beldangi 2 camp in eastern Nepal are doing.

Tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees live in Nepalese camps. But nearly 80,000 have left in the past six years as part of a resettlement push to move them into better living conditions.

Now — finally — his sister is among them. And he'll come back to the airport tomorrow to welcome her.

Standing here, watching passengers stream by, he remembers the day he first came to Atlanta more than two years ago on a flight from New York after leaving Nepal. The memory of the airport is still fresh in his mind. "So many people," he says.

He smiles, thinking of the way his life began to change that day, the way his sister's life will change now, too. For him, the difference between life in the United States and Nepal is clear.

"It's just like heaven," he says, "and hell."

How it works

They're the invisible part of the airport, rarely seen but making it tick: They clear planes for takeoff, track storms, handle baggage, fuel aircraft and make sure that package you ordered online gets to your doorstep on time. Once you meet them, you'll never look at an airport the same way again.

1:30 p.m.'Feeding' the beast

Mike Ryan chomps on a stick of gum and clicks his pen as he keeps an eye on the Airbus A319 heading for Atlanta.

It's Delta Flight 1767 arriving from Flint, Michigan. Ryan can't see the jet. It's just a blip on his screen in a dark, curved, windowless room 30 miles from the airport.

Ryan is one of two dozen air traffic controllers at the Federal Aviation Administration's Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON. They sit at radar consoles, their faces bathed in an eerie green glow.

The Airbus is one of more than a dozen planes Ryan is tracking.

Controllers here handle planes that are 4 to 40 miles from the airport. They're part of an intricate network that keeps air traffic moving — and part of the huge behind-the-scenes effort that keeps Atlanta's airport humming. From controllers and ground crews to baggage handlers and a cargo "cowboy," not a single jet could get off the runway without their help.

If the nearby Atlanta FAA Center, which handles the entire region, is the highway of the sky, then TRACON is the offramp, guiding traffic to the parking garage — the traffic control tower at the airport.

At least that's how the controllers here describe it. Even within TRACON, the controllers have different roles. Today, Ryan is the "feeder," slowing planes down, lowering their altitude and handing them off to another controller, known as the "final" — who hands them off to the airport tower.

A self-described aviation junkie, Ryan saw a newspaper ad years ago about qualifying for air traffic control training. He took the civil service exam, which led to a 22-year career path from the Bay Area to Southern California to Cleveland and, five years ago, Atlanta.

He says he "fell into it — and fell in love with it."

Within 30 seconds Ryan issues directions to five pilots flying hundreds of passengers.

"Delta 1767, descend and maintain 7,000," Ryan says in a clear monotone.

Two seconds later, he calls another A319, this one flying in from Little Rock, Arkansas: "Delta 1733, descend and maintain one-two-thousand."

Next an Air Canada jet: "AC 4940, descend and maintain 7,000."

In no time, Ryan goes back to Delta 1767, to tell the pilot to use another frequency to reach the "final," who's sitting at a radar screen next to Ryan's.

The "final" will guide the plane to within 4 miles of the runway before handing it off to the airport tower.

"Contact Approach 1-2-7-point-2-5," Ryan says. "Good day."

Inside the Federal Aviation Administration's Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, Ken Hunihan monitors the systems that air traffic controllers use, including radar antennas and communication towers.

9:35 a.m.On top of the world

Brian Wilante scans the room, then the horizon. A gentle wind is blowing from the northwest. Every few seconds a low rumble rises from below as an airliner throttles into the sky.

Wilante is nearly 400 feet above the runway in "The Cab" — the top of the tallest air traffic control tower in North America. It offers a one-of-a-kind, 360-degree view of taxiways and runways laid out in sprawling ribbons.

An 8-by-10 paper tacked to a console reads "Today's forecast," followed by a big yellow smiley face. It feels to Wilante like this day will be on the light side, but it's hazy. He can barely make out the white roof of the Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons, 10 miles away.

As a kid, Wilante cherished his Matchbox airport set and die-cast toy planes. Now, the veteran air traffic controller is surrounded by the beeping and humming tools of the profession.

He's one of more than a dozen men and women controlling the planes — and passengers' safety — each shift. They're the chief guardians of all airspace within 4 miles of the airport, up to 4,000 feet off the ground.

No shift here goes as planned. Every day includes five or six emergencies — from minor mechanical problems to in-flight heart attacks to infant births. Controllers here can quickly "make a hole" in the landing order, pushing a flight to the front while coordinating with paramedics on the runway or at the gate.

At the center of it is supervisor Murray Storm, sporting a headset above his graying mustache as he hands out job assignments.

"What do you have?" Wilante asks. Storm issues Wilante his gig: directing takeoffs on Runway 10/28, Atlanta's newest.

Stepping toward a console, Wilante puts on a headset and begins a carefully controlled procedure before taking over the runway.

Wilante gets a briefing about which planes are about to depart, where they're going and what commands the pilots have already gotten. After the handoff, the previous controller watches Wilante for two minutes to make sure he understands everything.

Many of the pilots Wilante handles fly in and out of Atlanta frequently. They know his thick New York accent, if not his face.

"There's a familiarity between the pilots and controllers," Wilante explains.

Wilante radios his pilots on the airfield below — setting up for departure, guiding them on the runway and green-lighting each for takeoff. Wilante times the departures so the planes have a safe distance separating them after takeoff: 3 miles for most airliners, 5 for the larger ones.

"AirTran Flight 382, you're cleared for takeoff." Less than a minute later, the Boeing 717 is wheels up and headed to Baltimore.

4:40 a.m.Cans, tugs and dots

Megan pulls into the FedEx facility amid the howl of aircraft engines and the tart smell of jet fuel.

Megan is a plane.

An MD-10, to be precise, FedEx Flight 1703 from Indianapolis.

Every plane in the company's fleet is named after an employee's child. It's a competitive process – every time FedEx gets a new plane, employees can submit their children's names. The winner is chosen by raffle.

Megan may be distinctively named, but in other respects she's an average member of FedEx's 670-strong fleet. And the system of unloading the plane is a well-practiced procedure.

Even before the engines wind down, a giant lift makes its way up 30 feet to the airplane's cargo door. One by one, giant containers – "cans" – are rolled from the plane onto the lift, lowered to the ground and placed on a flatbed dolly pulled by a "tug."

From there the cans are rolled into FedEx's 285,000-square-foot facility, their freight unloaded onto conveyor belts. (The floor is speckled with wheels and convex "dots" — ball bearings in the floor — making it easier to push around the cans, which can weigh 5,000 pounds.)

From just looking, you'd never know the variety of items on board. It's box after package after cardboard crate, each with an identifying label, heading to destinations all over Georgia.

About 20 employees sort packages, load them into another set of containers and move those onto 18-wheel trucks — some headed just to the other side of the airport, others more than 100 miles away. From there, the containers are broken down again, their packages put on the familiar FedEx vans and sent out to offices, homes and businesses.

By 5:20, the first trucks holding Megan's freight pull out.

5:15 a.m.Move 'em on, head 'em out

His name is Alfonzo Ward Jr., but everyone calls him "Cowboy." He's even listed that way in the FedEx directory: Alfonzo Ward Jr. (Cowboy). The name comes from his bowlegged stance.

Every time a loaded truck pulls out of the FedEx facility, Cowboy hops in a cab and puts an empty trailer in its place.

He does this 30 or 40 times a shift.

If backing a trailer into a spot sounds hard, try doing it at a sharp angle in the rain. Cowboy has little forward space to work with, and so far this year Atlanta has gotten more than 50 inches of rain, well above average.

But Cowboy knows how to do it; he'll celebrate his 30th anniversary with FedEx in November.

"You have to count on your own expertise in getting the trailers in the dock," he says. "As soon as the driver pulls out, we have to get that trailer back in in a timely fashion so they load the next trailer."

One key time is 6:24 a.m. That's when all the freight has to be processed and the sorting lines shut down.

Why not 6:25? What difference can one minute make?

A lot, says Kerry Mason, senior manager of ramp operations. After all, overnight packages are promised to arrive by 10:30 a.m.

"Say you got 800 carriers and they all leave a minute later, that's 800 customers who are going to be dissatisfied if they get it there by 10:31 instead of 10:30," he says. "That one minute makes a big difference."

At 6:24, the facility gets quiet. The hum of the conveyor belts has stopped. The chock-chock sound of cans rolling from place to place is diminished. Many employees have left.

Of the four flights that landed this morning, only Megan is heading right back out: She's being loaded with cans full of mail. (Yes, the U.S. Postal Service subcontracts to FedEx.) She takes off for Memphis at 7:30.

The rest of the planes will sit on the tarmac until nightfall. That's when trucks will arrive from all over Atlanta full of tomorrow's packages — which will be sorted, loaded onto planes and sent into the air, ready for the whole process to begin again.

9:25 a.m.'Building a brick wall'

It's not even 9:30 in the morning and already the sweat is beading up on Scott Lotti's shaved head.

Lotti, 40, is a ramp agent for Southwest Airlines, hoisting bags onto a conveyor belt that sends them into the belly of a plane headed for Austin, Texas. Another ramp man in kneepads scrambles inside to stack and secure them.

"It's a game of Tetris every day," says Lotti, wearing shorts, a gray T-shirt and an orange reflector vest. "You got to kind of think of it like building a brick wall."

Once a plane pulls up to a gate, Southwest's ramp agents have about 30 minutes to unload and reload it before the plane heads off again — forcing them to work with brisk precision.

The best parts of the day are being outdoors and enjoying the easy camaraderie with crew members. The worst parts are the sudden, unexpected dangers. Lotti says one co-worker was killed when he drove a cart into a plane's propeller. Another was struck down by lightning.

Then there are the superheavy bags, the obese, leaden kind that one man can barely lift without help. Lotti has seen bags tipping the scales at more than 100 pounds — twice the weight most airlines will tolerate before punishing passengers with extra fees.

Southwest ramp agents must be able to lift 70 pounds. During the hiring process, they're asked to lift a heavy bag; if they can't, they don't get the job.

"Sometimes you wonder what people pack in these bags. You really do," he says.

The worst offenders? College students. "They've got all those books in there."

Lotti, not pictured, is a burly man and played football in high school, but like a lot of ramp agents he wears a back brace at work. He strained a disc in his back earlier this year. Other ramp agents have injured wrists, shoulders, knees.

"It's an unforgiving job if you do it wrong," he says.

Ramp agents are acutely aware that they work under the watchful gaze of passengers peering out from windows or gates.

"We live in a fishbowl," Lotti says. "We're surrounded by eyes. It keeps you on your task."

8:45 a.m.'My first responsibility'

Michael J. Maier winds his way beneath the Boeing 777. As the co-pilot on Delta flight 110 to Los Angeles, it's up to him to do an extra preflight safety check – in addition to the one done by a mechanic – to make sure everything is up to snuff.

The captain is in the plane already, programming the flight computers and briefing the crew. Maier, the first officer, will soon join him.

He looks at the engines to confirm that there are no oil leaks or nicks on the blades. He stands before the nose-gear well and examines the landing gear. The tires look good. The hydraulic lines are leak-free. The lights are in working order.

Maier began his career as an Air Force pilot in 1982. He flew A-10s during the Cold War and was there when the Berlin Wall came down. After leaving active duty, he joined the Reserve before retiring from the Air Force. He's been flying for Delta since 1991 and has been piloting the Boeing 777 for the last seven years.

On his tie is a small commemorative pin, issued by the Air Line Pilots Association. It says, "In Memory 9-11-01. God Bless America." He says he never flies without it.

"It reminds me that my first responsibility is the safety and security of the passengers and flight crew."

9:38 a.m.Cheers for a nervous newbie

Sirprena Spearman is at the wheel of a tug. She only learned to drive it a week ago — now she's getting ready to push a plane back from the gate for the first time.

Spearman is a ramp worker for Southwest. She started "running bags" for AirTran in 2005, but with the Southwest merger, all ramp workers are now required to handle every job.

"I was so excited to learn new stuff," she says.

The pilots know she's a trainee and are patient as she rolls them back, a trainer at her side. It takes her a few minutes longer than an experienced driver, but she gets the Boeing 737 onto the taxiway by 9:43 a.m. — ready for the pilots to turn on the engines and move under the aircraft's own power. Soon it will be in the air bound for Seattle.

As Spearman climbs out of the tug, she's greeted by cheers and applause from a dozen co-workers.

"I was so nervous, y'all!" she says, happily accepting their hugs.

11 a.m.'Boxes don't talk'

A thousand arrivals and departures. 640 workers. 500,000 square feet of space. 250 live animal shipments a day. 437 million pounds of cargo a year.

To say Delta's cargo facility stays busy is an understatement. The airline handled 32% of the airport's total 2012 load of 646,481 metric tons of cargo, making Delta the airport's largest cargo carrier.

Nothing stays in place for long; 60 forklifts are always in motion, sorting pallets by destination: Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Paris.

Sometimes, though, a shipment doesn't make it. That's where Shantay Small comes in. Her job is to figure out what went wrong — and where. It requires a lot of detail work.

"I go back and see what happened — if it was returned back to the shipper, or if it was something that needs to be rescreened, if there was no space on the aircraft so we had to rebook it – I find out exactly what happened to get it moving," she explains.

Small started as a passenger gate agent and moved to baggage service before coming to cargo.

She prefers the freight side of things, she says: It's a little more flexible, a little less demanding, and not as, ah, contentious.

"I like to tell people, 'Boxes don't talk.'"

4:30 p.m.Keeping his eye on the blob

It's a warm, sunny afternoon in Atlanta, but there's a problem on Fred Brennan's screens: A blob of showers is affecting airports in Boston, New York, Washington and other cities across the Northeast.

For all the sun here, that blob has been giving pilots headaches since early morning.

"It's really bogged us down," says Brennan, a meteorologist for Delta. Even though the rain is dissipating, "we're still trying to recover from it."

While Brennan keeps an eye on the Northeast, his cubicle neighbor, Bill Thull, watches Atlanta and the Midwest.

The two contribute regularly to Delta's five-day weather outlook, released every morning. Updates come every six hours and include red flags for flight paths around the world.

Their forecasts are highly detailed, predicting exactly when and where storms will occur, down to the hour.

Just a few feet away, dispatchers use the forecasts to tweak flight schedules, fuel orders and routes to avoid the upcoming weather. Delta says it's the only U.S. airline that has a meteorology staff to create its own forecasts.

Like a virus, flight delays due to the Northeastern blob spread across airports, including Atlanta.

Passengers miss their connections, and when the weather clears, the resulting traffic surge in the Northeast will create extra work at their destinations later.

Meteorologist Bill Thull follows developing weather in Atlanta and the Midwest.

8:32 p.m.Ups and downs

"Game time!"

An hour ago, Toney Frank was reminding his crew this is Founder's Day — UPS's 106th birthday. In two days, if all goes well, his team will hit another milestone — 30,000 safe workdays — which will call for a party.

Frank asks his crew members what they'd like to grill.

"Steak," they reply in unison — before bursting into laughter. The Atlanta air division manager shakes his head.

"What is steak?" he asks. "Chopped beef." If they hit their goal, they plan to celebrate with burgers.

For now, there's work to be done. His starting call is the cue: Dozens of workers in yellow vests begin to zip between planes. Semis arrive. Armored vehicles pull up to the jets with "high-value cargo," better known as cash.

Most nights, four UPS planes fly out of Atlanta – three to Louisville, Kentucky, and one to Philadelphia. It's a small operation compared to the hub in Kentucky, but the pressure is real.

Sometimes they carry something special, like live whales or terra-cotta figures; most nights it's mail, flowers, floor samples, lobsters – whatever comes in from Atlanta's workday and has to be somewhere fast.

Packages are tagged, secured, weighed and collected in massive containers designed for the 757s, A300 and monster MD-11 that UPS is flying tonight.

It takes this team 45 minutes to load an A300 scheduled to depart at 9:56 p.m. But with less than an hour to go, some packages aren't on site yet.

"This is why you get this right here," Frank says, rubbing his bald head. "This is pushing it, but hey, that's what we do."

Some of the containers are being hoisted onto the empty jet. One by one, they're locked into place.

At 9:39 p.m., the final topside container heads up. A crew pushes it over the jet's rolling-ball floor, and for the first time, the yellow vests glowing on the dark ramp halt.

At 9:41, the container comes back out. Something is wrong.

At 9:42 p.m., it sinks back down, away from the plane.

At 9:46, the cargo door closes without the last container aboard.

Glitches are real, says night manager Mark Ballman, but there's always a backup plan. In this case, the bottom of the container popped out just enough that it couldn't be locked into place. If it's not secure, it won't fly.

The crew could've swapped containers or tried to fix this one, but they might've missed their flight time. He had to make the call, and he decided this container could catch a later flight.

So at 9:50, the captain's paperwork is validated, and the door is shut. The plane pushes back at 9:52, four minutes early.

But soon it returns. The captain realizes paperwork needs to be revalidated.

This 9:56 flight is finally in the air by 10:15.

One down, three to go. At 10:31, the second flight pushes back, and a little brown truck from somewhere in Atlanta whips into the facility.

They're not done yet.

3:36 a.m.The Plane Train takes a nap

This is one of the few hours when the sweltering tunnel is relatively quiet. Usually it's a nonstop blur.

As many as 11 trains — each consisting of four 18-ton cars — shuttle about 235,000 passengers a day from terminals to concourses to baggage claim and back in a matter of minutes.

For now, the Plane Train is down for its nightly inspection.

That's when workers scour 4 miles of track for loose fixtures, faulty doors or the occasional cell phones, Barbie dolls or car keys dropped between platforms and trains.

"One woman left $5,000 of camera gear on the train," says Steve Poerschmann, the city's director of automated people mover systems. "We have a very close relationship with airport lost and found."

One crew inspects switches and valves that send the trains in different directions.

"Twenty-seven switches like this are inspected daily," Poerschmann says, gushing over the system like a proud father. "It's more than just a horizontal elevator."

Meanwhile, another worker shoves wooden objects between train doors — first a square stick, then a cylindrical rod. He's testing various objects to make sure the proper sensors react in case anything – say, an arm — gets stuck in a door.

Still, Poerschmann says, the train has a reliability rate of more than 99%.

Pity the traveler who tries to walk from ticketing to Concourse F. The journey can take more than 30 minutes.

The Plane Train isn't just a passenger convenience. It means the airlines get their flights out on time, too.

"Airlines schedule their connections based on the transit time between connections," Poerschmann says. "The airport couldn't operate without the Plane Train."

Echoes of war

Troops heading to and from battle made the airport a military crossroads. Now, it's more a spot where recruits meet before going to basic training. Their mission is the same, though: Keep America safe for citizens, immigrants and refugees — like those arriving here daily.

8:45 a.m.Carrying on a family tradition

Tina Moore shouts as soon as her son steps off the escalator.

"There he is! Oh, my God!"

She bounds toward him with her daughter and stops herself from blurting out his nickname, Boo Boo.

Weeks ago, Julien left for basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, then headed to advanced training at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. Before that, the family had never been apart for more than three days.

Now her 19-year-old son is U.S. Army Pvt. Julien Keith, a trained helicopter repairman. He stands tall, straight and solemn as they snap photos in baggage claim. It's the first time he's worn his uniform in public.

His 17-year-old sister, Aisia, puts her arm around him. She's wearing a bright pink T-shirt that says "Proud Sister."

Aisia hears her mom's voice crack and teases her for getting emotional: "I knew you were going to cry."

"I was really happy," Moore says. "Seeing him in his uniform, that really got me."

The airport has seen tens of thousands of young men like him. This is a place of peace shaped by a time of war. It's where recruits with noble ideals begin their journeys, newly minted warriors head for first deployments, battle-hardened soldiers search for solace, and refugees seek safety as they start a new life — the sounds of conflict echoing in their minds.

Tina Moore served in the military, too, and she's proud her son is carrying on the family tradition. She worries about him getting hurt, but she's pushing that out of her mind.

For now she's focused on the fun they'll have for the next two weeks — the barbecues and family visits — before Julien reports to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and begins his new mission: serving his country.

A corkboard full of military patches and souvenirs is mounted to the wall of a Starbucks near a security checkpoint. Employees say troops who come through the airport offer the patches as a way of saying thanks, since the coffee shop won't let them pay.

6:45 p.m.Before boot camp, a soldier reflects

3:15 p.m.'Seems like we're clickin' pretty good'

Mahdey Shaheen was so excited last night he couldn't sleep. He went to bed at 2 a.m., woke up at 5 and had to run 3 miles to calm himself down.

Now he sits near a snack bar in the airport's USO lounge with a group of fellow recruits. They met on a flight from Columbus, Ohio.

"It seems like we're clickin' pretty good," he says, "so hopefully we'll stay together."

In just a few minutes, they're scheduled to meet a sergeant and get ready for a bus ride to Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, where they'll begin basic training.

The 26-year-old Ohio State University student is drawn to the camaraderie of the military and hopes it will help him pay for college.

His parents were against him joining up, and for a while he listened. But this year he decided to go for it.

"It's always been nagging at me," he says. "I didn't want to grow up with regrets."

Shaheen walks around the USO lounge, nudging people who are sleeping.

"Are you guys going to basic?" he asks them. "They want us down there at 3:30."

He leads a group to the clock tower in the airport's atrium, where they've been told to meet. In polo shirts, jeans and neon sneakers, they look like a group of young guys heading down a school hallway. Only the camouflage backpacks hint at what lies ahead.

12:40 p.m.'We don't know where we are'

Eman Omar and Rita Sabbagh walk side by side through the airport, talking quietly in Arabic.

Omar's daughters, 11 and 12, walk a few yards in front of them.

Their names — Farah and Hiba — mean "joy" and "gift."

Farah has a nickname, too: "Mickey," given to her years ago by Americans in Iraq.

The girls are children of war, Omar says, and they have suffered greatly.

"I want to change that," she says. "They've had a hard life."

This Iraqi refugee family just arrived in Atlanta to begin a new life with the help of people like Sabbagh, a case aide with the International Rescue Committee.

Just 30 minutes ago, Sabbagh was rushing across the arrivals lobby to greet them. Omar was crying. One of her daughters was clutching a teddy bear.

"We don't know where we are," Omar, 40, said in Arabic. When Sabbagh told her they're in Atlanta, Omar burst into tears again — this time because she was so relieved to hear someone speaking her language.

"Are you going to stay with us?" she asks. Sabbagh tells her she's come to take them to their new home.

The three have been traveling for more than a day. First on a 10-hour flight from Istanbul to JFK. Then an overnight stay in a New York hotel. Then a two-hour flight to Atlanta after missing their connection at LaGuardia, where they couldn't find the security checkpoint.

They got lost again in Atlanta after getting off the plane, taking nearly 45 minutes to make it to the arrivals lobby.

Now, as they pile their six stuffed duffel bags onto a cart, global news blares from nearby TVs. The headlines are grim: World leaders are preparing for a possible military strike against Syria. Tension is bubbling over in Baghdad after a string of bombings killed 50 people.

The broadcasts are in English, a language Omar barely understands. But the stories are all too familiar.

Her husband was killed in war-torn Baghdad nearly a decade ago, when her daughters were just toddlers.

For eight years afterward, they tried to make Damascus their home. But violence from Syria's growing unrest forced them to flee.

They lived in Sakarya, Turkey, for nearly two years after that.

Omar says she brought her children to America for one reason: aman, the Arabic word for safety.

Seeing the two girls — skinny, shy and quick to smile — makes Sabbagh think back to when she immigrated to the United States from Israel with her own family decades ago. She was 16 at the time. Her brother was 2.

"That just took me back 32 years, when we came to a strange country," she says. "Now we're citizens. We never dreamed of that."

Omar smiles as she talks about how her daughters will go to school and study here, and how she wants to study, too, and learn English.

Walking outside the airport into the hot Atlanta sun, the girls start to giggle and play.

There are many good things about America, Omar says as she watches them. But the best thing, she says, is that they've arrived.

2,714 refugees resettled in Georgia in fiscal year 2013

99% of arrivals to Georgia come through the Atlanta airport

17 people in 5 families were welcomed to Georgia by the International Rescue Committee on this day. IRC is the state's largest resettlement office

Source: International Rescue Committee

8:35 a.m.On the front lines

Kevin Rader missed his uniform after he left the military.

Now he's decked out in TSA blue, a small gold badge on his pocket a reminder of his military unit.

Minutes ago, Rader helped a wounded veteran through security screening. The TSA offers expedited screening to severely injured members of the military.

The former infantryman called a special TSA hotline for help navigating the airport.

Rader also helped the man when he first arrived in Atlanta.

"I met this fellow all the way out on the jetway in Concourse E and brought him through all the way to the curb and his waiting taxi so he could get to his meetings," Rader says.

"It's a bit of a walk, but he's blind and I served in the military. Infantry. It's an easy way for me to give back."

On days like today, Rader remembers he was lucky. "My dad knew the guy at the Pentagon who handed out assignments," he says. "I got Hawaii."

Rader is proud of the years he spent in military service from 1996 to 2000. "They tried to recall me for the war," he says, "but I wasn't interested."

Now, Rader says, he's serving in another way – doing whatever he can to help veterans and others with disabilities.

A TSA colleague, Shekia Gay, didn't serve in the military but has a similar take.

Gay still remembers the fear in his mother's voice on September 11, 2001. He was just 21 when she woke him up to tell him a plane had crashed into the twin towers. The moment changed him.

"I vowed I would help people and do my patriotic duty and make sure nothing like that happened again," he says.

Inspired to act, he joined the Transportation Security Administration. Now 33, he screens passengers and baggage, weighing security threats and watching human dramas that unfold at the airport every day.

"My mom was really happy that I was on the front line," he says, "but not in a war zone."

But even here at Hartsfield-Jackson, thousands of miles from any battlefield, the realities of war are painfully clear.

Gay says he'll always remember the day he watched an inconsolable 5-year-old and her father, who was returning to fight in Afghanistan.

"The little girl was so upset saying goodbye to her daddy," Gay recalls.

His eyes tear up now, remembering how he stepped in when her father turned to go.

"I made sure I told her everything would be OK," he says.

3:35 p.m.Armed with papers — and Twix bars

Michael Polite looks like he doesn't know where to go.

The gangly 22-year-old towers over the rest of the military recruits waiting around the airport. He's wearing a red and white polo and green khakis with the hems let out.

In one hand he holds a packet of Twix bars. In the other, a manila envelope with the paperwork that summoned him to this spot.

He's known since May that this was the day he'd head to Fort Benning for basic training. And for longer than that, he's known he wanted to join the military. He's tired of seeing people do bad things and get away with it.

But today, he's worried. He's been trying to chat with people in the USO lounge and keep from getting too nervous. He's not sure if he's ready for the physical grind.

He told his parents about his plans to join the military only a few days ago. It didn't go well.

"My mom is really negative about it," he says. "She thinks I'm going to just get deployed and die."

Today, it was his recruiter — not his parents — who drove him to the airport.

"My mom just said take care of myself, but I know she's real depressed about it."

5:42 p.m.The next wave of warriors

"Would you like a neck pillow?"

It's the one question Mary Lou Austin asks every recruit who walks inside the USO lounge. This is where they can get sandwiches, snacks and a chance to relax before their bus ride to basic training.

A former teacher, Austin has been helping soldiers for 45 years — ever since she noticed a USO billboard, applied for a job and got assigned to Biloxi, Mississippi, at the height of the Vietnam War.

She spent the last decade dealing with massive groups of soldiers as wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Atlanta was one of two hubs for troops going home for R&R — rest and relaxation.

The last chartered R&R flight landed here in April. It was a bittersweet day for Austin — glad to see the wars coming to an end, but sad not to be able to serve so many men and women who sacrificed so much for their country.

These days, Austin focuses on recruits.

A few dozen young men flip through magazines and kick back in living room loungers once occupied by combat soldiers. Austin will see many of them again after basic training, when they fly through Atlanta to their assigned duty stations.

She knows they will be different then — hardened and ready for battle.

The USO served 330,000 military personnel at Hartsfield-Jackson in 2012

The military's R&R charter flights stopped in April 2013. This year, the airport's USO center served 128,120 troops through September

200 active-duty troops passed through the USO center this day; another 220 new recruits made their way this day to basic training

Source: USO. CNN documented the airport on August 28, 2013

3:15 p.m.Last line of defense

Down the hall from the USO office, the airport's chaplain and a volunteer squad of good Samaritans keep watch. They roam the airport, seeking out people in need.

Sometimes, they don't have to go far.

During the height of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chaplain Chester Cook says he regularly spoke with soldiers suffering from combat stress.

Once, Cook says he talked down a soldier who was about to jump from the third floor into the lobby below.

For the soldier going back to war, the airport chaplain was the last line of defense.

3:30 p.m.'So in love'

Kathy Rickheim stares at a photo of her son, Logan, a 24-year-old U.S. Marine sniper in Afghanistan.

"Because of his job he can't tell us a whole lot," Rickheim says. "It's been difficult."

Rickheim flew in from her home in Michigan and is waiting for a connecting flight to North Carolina, where she'll visit Logan's wife, Laura, 22.

She misses her son, who is based at Camp Lejeune, and is excited to spend some girl time with her daughter-in-law.

"They're so in love with each other," she says. "I told her, 'I just love you so much, because you love my son so much.'"

4:37 p.m.On the lam no longer

Not everyone who joins the military wants to stay in the military.

This afternoon, Customs and Border Protection officers are standing at the end of a jetway, waiting for an Air Canada plane to pull up to the gate.

On board the flight from Toronto is a suspected military deserter. The officers are armed with batons, guns — and his picture.

As the plane empties of passengers, it doesn't take long for the officers to spot their man. They put his hands behind his back, place him in handcuffs and escort him off the jetway.

He talks quietly to the officers as they enter the International Terminal and head to an interview room. There's no fighting, no fuss — just quiet resignation as officers explain what's happened and prepare to hand the man over to other officials.

Arrests at the airport usually play out this calmly, the supervisor who headed up today's operation says.

"We see everything under the sun," he says, "arresting people wanted for everything from homicide to homeowners association violations."

Add to that a man facing possible court-martial.

4:30 p.m.The bus to basic training

Yes, there will be yelling, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Pruitt says. He knows; he's been a drill sergeant.

Now he's showing a softer side, giving anxious recruits a pep talk as they wait for the bus that will take them to basic training.

"When you get to Fort Benning, it's going to be a little tough," he tells them. "Remember to stay motivated. Every single one of you came here for a reason."

Families might not be supportive, he says. Girlfriends and wives might doubt them.

"Remember," Pruitt says with a smile, "if your girlfriend gets upset, there are a million women in the sea."

He asks if anyone is nervous.

Michael Polite, 22, raises his hand.

Pruitt asks what he's worried about.

"Fitness, Sergeant."

Pruitt tries to reassure him: "Once you get to basic training, just stay focused on your goal, OK?"

After a couple more hours, all 55 recruits are outside the airport, preparing to board the bus.

A few of them stand together. Justin Noble, Kyle Ostler and Angel Puente met earlier and became fast friends over Burger King.

Ostler, of Billings, Montana, and Noble, of Cynthiana, Kentucky, both come from military families and have an idea of what's in store. For Puente, whose parents emigrated from Mexico and live in Yuma, Arizona, this is all new. His family was shocked when he told them he wanted to join the Army.

"This is a good bonding experience for me," he says. "I like to meet new people."

Soon, the yelling begins. Staff Sgt. Brandon McDaniel barks orders at the recruits.

"The only things you can have with you on the bus are your wallets and cell phones."

"Can I take my water?" one recruit asks.

"No food or water on the bus," McDaniel replies sternly.

McDaniel has herded hundreds of recruits through the airport on their way to Fort Benning or Fort Jackson.

In a matter of hours, high school and life at home will become a distant past. They will be issued uniforms, haircuts and bunks. Then they'll begin a brutal regime of Army training.

McDaniel knows this is the beginning of their loss of innocence.

When they return, they will be warriors.

Sniffing and seizing

Fish in a suitcase, a cow's head and a giraffe bone — oh, and don't forget the guns, bugs and drugs. Officers and dogs sift and sniff travelers' bags for contraband and explosives — while out on the airfield the search is on for other things that shouldn't be there.

5:54 a.m.Something's fishy

Etieno Etuk has a pocket full of cash, and customs officials think something's fishy.

Back from a two-week trip visiting family in Nigeria, the Houston man has a connecting flight to make at 7:25. But he has drawn the attention of Customs and Border Protection officers and finds himself in an examination station in the agency's "hard secondary" inspection area at the International Terminal.

It's all stainless steel and business, one of many places — some hidden, some in plain sight — where customs officers, Transportation Security Administration officers and airport employees spend their days searching for what's out of place, what doesn't seem right, what smells — sometimes literally.

A smartly dressed customs officer who only gives his last name — Gaud — asks Etuk to unlock his bags, two large red ones and a smaller purple bag.

"This is a lot of stuff for two weeks," Gaud says as he runs his black-gloved hands through the pockets of one bag. He pulls out a bottle and pops the lid.

"Vitamins?" he asks.

Etuk nods.

Gaud slips the bottle back into the bag, zips it closed and reaches for another piece of luggage.

It is a suitcase full of fish.

Dried, wrapped in paper and plastic. It's for soup, Etuk says.

Nothing you can't get in the States, he says. Maybe it's better. Maybe it's cheaper. He's not clear.

Etuk has been here nearly half an hour. Gaud is satisfied with Etuk's explanation for the thousands of dollars of cash in his pocket. It's less than $10,000, so he doesn't have to declare it. The officer is still searching the bags.

"This is making me late," Etuk says. "This has never happened before. I told this guy I had to catch a connecting flight. This guy tells me I can miss my flight. They're rude. They should have more people working."

But every station is staffed by officers inspecting other passengers' bags.

Gaud is not to be rushed. He clears Etuk at 6:35 a.m. – plenty of time for the passenger, and his fish, to fly away.

6,470 U.S. citizens, 5,257 international visitors and 428 legal permanent residents screened by Customs and Border Protection this day

Fewer than 1% of travelers receive secondary customs screening

Source: Customs and Border Protection. CNN documented the airport on August 28, 2013

12 a.m.Light 'em up, up, up

At the world's busiest airport, people whose jobs involve searching, sniffing and seizing are at work every hour of the day. Some sift baggage for contraband; others use dogs to find explosives. And out on the airfield, folks like Geoffrey Gaskin check for burned-out lights, dangerous debris and too much rubber on the runway.

It's midnight. Gaskin talks into his two-way radio: "Tower, this is Airport Whiskey 4-5. Please step the runway lights to step four."

In a flash, Runway 8L/26R lights up like a Christmas tree.

Huge "X" signs lit by bright white lights flash on at each end of the runway, a warning to pilots that it is closed. And Gaskin, a senior airside operations supervisor, begins his slow drive down 9,000 feet – nearly two miles. He inspects the center line of lights first, then makes another loop to eyeball the lights on the edges of the runway.

Every light out here means something, he says. Two-thirds of the way down the runway, the lights change from white to red and white — a signal to pilots that they're about to run out of landing space. With 2,000 feet remaining, the lights change again, to cautionary amber. Across the airfield, a total of 17,466 lights ensure safe takeoffs and landings.

Gaskin and his colleagues consider this the big leagues; after all, these runways are the premier field in the aviation game. Tonight his inspection reveals just two lights out, which he notes on his clipboard. The Federal Aviation Administration allows no more than 10% of each light system to be out.

The agency requires U.S. airports to inspect airfields before the first flight of the day. Since the air traffic only slows down but never really stops in Atlanta, lights are inspected just after midnight and a search for junk on the runway (Foreign Object Debris or FOD, as it's called at the airport) is done at first light.

In between, Michael Giambrone arrives at Runway 8L in a yellow Saab hatchback transformed into a rubber friction-testing machine.

With airplanes landing at speeds about 160 mph and then braking, the arrival runways collect a good amount of rubber. And too much rubber can keep aircraft wheels from properly gripping the pavement. The friction test must be done every other week, but removal is required only when two 500-foot sections drop below the required friction levels. That's about every four to six months. Chemical treatments and broom-equipped trucks used for snow removal get the job done.

6:22 a.m.The longest (and wildest?) flight

The sky is still dark as Delta Flight 201 taxis toward gate F8. This Boeing 777, the second-largest plane in Delta's fleet, has just arrived from Johannesburg, completing the longest nonstop flight in the airline's global network.

Large cans filled with priority bags are the first to come off, followed by the rest of the baggage and cargo. At the back of the plane, items checked at the last minute — bags and strollers, mostly — ride down a conveyor belt with pets that traveled as cargo. Dazed-looking dogs stare from behind carrier crate bars.

Then come the guns.

It's hunting season in South Africa, and judging by the number of high-powered rifles moving down the conveyor belt, quite a few passengers aboard this flight were on the prowl.

Timothy Square is one of the men unloading the weapons, and he explains that they will be driven to customs and, for security purposes, put in the "glass room" off the international baggage claim lobby. Serial numbers will be checked to ensure they match passengers' customs declarations. Then hunters will be called inside to claim their guns.

"You should see them. They look into the glass room like deers themselves." Square laughs as he holds his hands up, as if they're pressed against glass, and opens his eyes wide in imitation.

But what if the traveling hunters actually killed something? Where does that stuff go?

Square shrugs. It beats him.

Another worker chimes in: He's heard that people pay big bucks to put their "trophies" in cargo.

We gawk at a stack of large wooden boxes, many marked fragile, and wonder what's inside.

Customs officers check the serial numbers of weapons that arrived on a flight from Johannesburg. About 40 to 60 weapons are cleared by customs at Hartsfield-Jackson on a typical day.

6:36 a.m.A search goes bust

A customs officer pulls a pair of white metal bottles from a Texas woman's luggage. One look at the label tells him this could get interesting.

A naked man is pictured embracing an equally naked woman, her breasts conveniently obscured by his cupped hands. "Macho Potenciador Sexual" the label says.

It's a Colombian aphrodisiac, but customs officers suspect it might contain something even more stimulating — narcotics.

Traveling back from a trip to Colombia on a ticket purchased recently with cash, the woman has drawn the officers' attention as a possible drug smuggler.

She's relatively small, they note, but rather busty. They wonder if she's hiding drugs in her bra.

The officer, who asks not to be identified, places a few ampules of the aphrodisiac in a plastic pouch, then crushes them. The substance comes back clean. It's nothing more than the sex aid the label claims, but officers still aren't satisfied.

"The whole story doesn't add up," says Stephen Kremer, director of Customs and Border Protection for the Atlanta port.

A female customs officer is summoned to take the passenger to a private area for a more thorough search.

It turns up nothing. She really is just busty. They clear her on to Texas.

A customs officer authenticates passenger passports and visas.

A customs officer displays a close-up of a fraudulent U.S. visa.

11:06 a.m.'Symphony of movement'

In the vast Delta cargo facility, Quatian Allen, who goes by "Q," gives Zera a command in German. She's a German shepherd, after all.

The TSA officer is testing her bomb-sniffing colleague.

Zera zooms ahead, spinning and jumping, as Allen calls out commands in a singsong voice.

The dog zeroes in on a pallet of boxes, circling it again and again. Then she homes in, planting her rump on the floor, announcing she's found the bomb test device.

Suddenly calm, intent, Zera waits for her reward – a black chew toy.

Just a few minutes earlier, another dog, Sandor, was bounding away with his own Kong toy — a reward from Officer Davarone Jackson — after the Belgian Malinois found the test material.

"It may seem chaotic to a viewer," Allen says, "but it's a symphony of exact movement to me."

7 a.m.Scavenger hunt on the runway

Normally it's the job of professionally trained airport operations teams to inspect the airfield every day for foreign objects. But once a year other employees are invited to grab a pair of gloves and a trash bag and walk one of the airport's five runways. It's called the annual Foreign Object Debris, or FOD, removal walk.

Kevin Fuzell, an airside operations supervisor at the airport, is out on Runway 10/28 when the walk begins at 7 a.m. "Aircraft are like large vacuum cleaners," he explains, and debris sucked into the engines can cause everything from minor to catastrophic damage.

"You find everything out here. Flashlights left in wheel wells. Bolts that come off carts. An aircraft ran over a fox on a runway once." He grimaces remembering the mess.

The runways are mostly debris-free this morning. Fuzell spots a red-tailed hawk overhead.

"There's a lot of grass out here," he says, "which means there's a lot of wildlife here every day. The red-tailed hawks come in search of rabbits." Sometimes he spots Canada geese.

He points to a red tube near the runway. It's a bird cannon that can be set to blare at intervals to scare the birds off. (Birds and aircraft engines aren't a good combination.)

The FOD walk ends with a small haul: a handful of pebble-sized rocks found on Runway 10/28, and small pieces of metal — ball bearings, springs and washers — pulled from the pavement joints on the South Cargo Ramp.

Participants stretch before the Foreign Object Debris walk.

7:40 a.m.Body scrub or body blast?

A suspicious jar is found in a black suitcase bound for Miami and beyond. Could it be an explosive?

If you've ever opened your bag after a trip and found a note from the TSA saying it's been searched, the search happened in a room like this one in the basement of the North Terminal.

With bright fluorescent lighting, stainless steel examination tables and workers wearing latex gloves, this TSA baggage-screening room has the feel of a laboratory. This morning, nine officers paw through bags containing items that raised a red flag out in the general screening area. Over and over, they slide the bags off conveyor belts and onto the stainless steel tables, zip them open and poke around. An X-ray screen shows them what to look for. Usually, it's a bottle or jar of some substance — Pepto-Bismol, say, or mulberry juice.

Damon Mason, a wiry man in his mid-30s, unzips the black bag on its way to the Cayman Islands via Miami. He pulls out the suspicious item in question — a jar labeled shea sugar body scrub — and swipes it with a small swab. He then feeds the swab into a tabletop machine, and it comes back as positive for a potential explosive.

Mason calls in his supervisor, who summons TSA explosives specialist Carlos Serrano, a 22-year veteran of the Atlanta Police Department's bomb squad. Serrano brings a portable electronic scanner and checks the body scrub's ingredients against a database of known explosive materials. This time, the test is negative. The bag is repacked and sent on its way.

"Just looking at it, I knew it wasn't an explosive," Serrano says. "But it's always good to double-check."

An explosives detection system in the baggage security facility. The machine scans every piece of checked luggage to ensure it's not carrying explosive materials. About 13 million checked bags are screened by the TSA annually at Hartsfield-Jackson.

7:41 a.m.Seeds of doubt

Customs Officer Arrisia Sims pours a pile of fragrant Indian jeera, or cumin seed, onto a piece of white paper. She's looking for evidence of Federal Noxious Weeds — FNW, to those in the know.

As she sorts the tiny brown seeds, she thinks of what she could cook with them. But her eyes are peeled for tiny interlopers. She immediately separates out two seeds that don't belong.

The cumin is all thrown out, joining a pile of seized beef, a bag of red fruit that smells like a dirty diaper and a head of lettuce that gave up a micro-sized bug whose identity stumps even the customs inspectors. All of it was seized this morning; all will go into a grinder for destruction. Customs officers will conduct 151 agriculture inspections on this day.

Officers write up what they've found and send it along to Customs and Border Protection in Washington and to Agriculture Department officials for analysis. Their observations could lead to warnings to other inspectors about what to look for, or even prompt new bans on agricultural products brought in on flights from around the world.

Sims, who studied plant science and biotechnology at Fort Valley State University, never dreamed she'd work for a law enforcement agency. But, she says, she loves the job now that she's here.

It does have one big drawback: She knows too much now about nasty diseases and pests lurking in the food supply.

"Going to the grocery store isn't the same anymore."

9:04 a.m.Who let the dogs out?

Where are the dogs? Andre' Sims' crew has been waiting all morning for the dogs to show up to sniff stacks of cardboard boxes bound for Las Vegas. Time is running short. It's 9:05 a.m., and the flight is supposed to leave in less than an hour.

Time for Plan B.

The humans at the Southwest Airlines cargo center will have to step in for the canines.

So pause the "Avengers" DVD in the break room. Hold off on the lunchtime cookout. Sims' team of five begins processing the boxes through a machine known as an Explosive Trace Detector. They swab the sides of each box, feed the rectangular swabs into the machine and await confirmation that everything checks out.

In just 10 minutes, the boxes are on their way down an ergonomically designed conveyor belt. At the other end, they are loaded onto Cart No. 22, a high-speed tug piloted by Oliver J. Long. He heads for gate D5, which should take 17 minutes, give or take a minute or two to flash his badge or wait out a blast from a jet engine.

Long pulls up, right on schedule, to a teal and white AirTran plane and hands the boxes over to a man in an orange vest.

Sims watches closely as each box is carried onto the front of the plane and secured. By 9:40, the last package is onboard. By 9:44, the cloth door is fastened shut to hold the boxes in place. This cargo is good to go, with 11 minutes to spare. Suitcases and duffel bags are still chugging up the conveyor belt at the back of the Boeing 737-700.

Can this flight possibly make it out by 9:55?

Sims shrugs: "The freight did."

10:19 a.m.Nigerian Versace

It's a heaping pile of luxury. Items with the best brands: Hugo Boss. Kenneth Cole. Versace. Hermes. Suits and coats and jackets and purses collectively valued at many thousands of dollars.

It's all counterfeit.

A clutch of Customs and Border Protection officers stands around the clothing and accessories, which have been laid out on a crate in the main warehouse of Delta's expansive cargo facility next to the International Terminal.

The swag came in from Lagos, Nigeria — an automatic tip-off, says one officer.

"They just don't make these items in Lagos."

Customs is a regular visitor here. Each day, officers study manifests and follow leads, keeping track of the countless goods coming in to the United States. They maintain a handful of vans with X-ray equipment, not to mention a K-9 unit to sniff out various banned, illegal or unfamiliar substances.

Although drug seizures and terrorist threats get the big headlines, some material simply violates intellectual property laws.

Looking at the counterfeit clothes, it's easy to joke about it as the sort of thing that ends up being sold on Manhattan street corners. But the damage goes far beyond a company's trademark — or the humiliation of a fashion victim whose stitching comes unraveled at the first drop of rain.

After all, a Hugo Boss suit or a Hermes bag can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars. That money ends up in some criminal pipelines, says customs Officer Gladys Summerville.

"It's one of the ways that terrorists are funding their organizations and their missions," Summerville says.

6:49 a.m.Please don't pet the customs officer

The 297 people just off the long flight from Johannesburg are waiting for their luggage. And Vince is making his rounds.

"Vince, as in Vince Dooley," says his partner, customs Officer Christyne Scofield, referring to the legendary University of Georgia football coach.

Vince is a beagle, and Scofield is his handler. This beagle is serving his country, but he's not a bomb dog. And he's not into drugs. Vince's niche is agriculture. He sniffs bags for hints of produce and other items banned from the United States.

Vince is Snoopy-cute. Travelers want to pose with him for photos. He might be the most popular customs officer in the airport.

"No petting," Scofield warns. He'd just want to sit there all day, she says.

Vince ambles up to a blue bag dangling from Tammy Birkmire's hands. He sniffs, then again. He's found something.

"What's in the bag?" Scofield asks.

"It's a giraffe bone," says Birkmire, who is from Pennsylvania. It's art, she explains.

That's allowed, Scofield says.

Birkmire and her giraffe bone are free to go.

11 a.m.Waiting for the worst

The five officers on the Atlanta Police Department's Bomb Tech Squad are busy training the fire department's emergency personnel at an off-site location. What happens if an explosive device goes off? How do you get the 95-pound Kevlar suit and 25-pound helmet off an injured bomb tech?

"It's like fileting a fish," says Officer Michael Payne. There's an art to it.

Payne likes to use food analogies. He loves to cook and had thought seriously about becoming a chef before he won a football scholarship to the University of West Georgia. No regrets, though. His experience as an offensive lineman — learning plays and practicing them over and over again — is paying off in his current job.

Payne, otherwise known as Goob — only his mother calls him Michael — looks like an offensive lineman: He's 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds.

He works out for an hour and a half a day at the gym on the first floor of the pyramid-shaped building the bomb squad occupies just outside the airport. He tries to elevate his heart rate to 170 beats a minute to condition it for the time he spends inside the bomb suit defusing a bomb.

"If you're used to performing at a higher heart rate, it helps control the anxiety," he says.

Payne hasn't had to tackle a real bomb at the Atlanta airport — not yet, anyway. But he practices twice a week to keep up his skill level. The training bombs are inert, but Payne insists it's very much like dealing with the real thing. He won't give details but says, "you know when you mess up."

His real salve is humor. Payne and his colleagues have known each other for years. They eat together, they blow up bombs together and they laugh together. You have to, Payne says. You need levity for such a heavy job. Asked to describe his work, he answers: "I like to pick things up and put them down."

So far today, there has been no need to call in the bomb squad, a good thing for everyone. But it's only 11 a.m. The day is young.

Payne guesses it's a million-dollar loss every time the airport comes to a standstill. But he is prepared with 8,000 hours of training behind him. In June, the airport evacuated part of Concourse D after an electrical explosion near gate 21. The bomb squad rushed over to check it out.

The Army green suit looks menacing but really, says Payne, if there is a powerful explosion, the suit basically keeps your body together for a funeral. It's just like any other policing tool, he says. It has limitations.

So why do this job?

"I believe in good versus evil."

12:06 p.m.The bug beat

One of the better places to be at high noon on a hot, muggy August day in Atlanta is the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection room in Delta's cargo facility next to the International Terminal.

Cargo in the form of food or medicine arrives in temperature-controlled boxes called "Envirotainers" and gets special attention as it makes its way from a warehouse cooled by giant fans to the chilled inspection room.

Once there, officers take samples, looking for pests, diseases and other organisms that could contaminate the U.S. food supply.

On this day, officers are scrutinizing shipments of avocados and breadfruit from Jamaica, roses from Ecuador. The crops are ultimately headed for Newark, New Jersey. One officer occasionally squints through a microscope while another beats on the flowers to shake loose any insects. What if they set free some kind of horrific bug? Could cargo turn into "Contagion"?

Parris Hawkins, chief of agriculture for Customs and Border Protection, brushes off such concerns.

"It's the potential, but it's small," Hawkins says. "A lot of bugs we get are like your Coleoptera, your Lepidoptera."

That would be your beetles, your butterflies and your moths.

6:40 p.m.The daily grind

Ginep. Mangosteen. Guava. Eggplant. Nance fruit. Ginger. Jocote. Grapefruit. Watermelon.

These aren't the offerings of some international supermarket. They're seized produce, destined for Customs and Border Protection's grinding machine.

Some items that need more inspection get sidelined to a nearby U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory. Bigger items — beef, sugar cane or bags of food banned from coming into the United States — are hauled away. Everything else goes through an industrial kitchen grinder in a back room in the International Terminal.

Tonight, agriculture specialist Lauren Lewis does the honors. It's 6:40 p.m., just past suppertime.

Slipping on black gloves, she takes each piece — garlic, onions, rambutans, carrots and more — and feeds it into the whirring machine.

With that, what might have been someone's post-flight snack is reduced to mush.

All in the name of safety.

Life of one plane

In hand: 12 boarding passes. The assignment: Fly AirTran's busiest plane from the busiest concourse out of the world's busiest airport. One plane, six flights, four pilots, six flight attendants, 555 passengers, 1,864 nautical miles — and two reporters.

As dawn breaks in Atlanta, an immigrant from Chile is arriving at the airport with her daughter to go see family in Memphis, Tennessee. A man in Minnesota is on his way for a vacation with a boyhood friend. A woman is headed to Florida to catch a flight for her sister's funeral in New Jersey. A young family prepares to spend the weekend at the National Sweetcorn Festival in Illinois.

All of them will be transported on the same plane this day. They don't know each other, and their paths won't cross. But collectively, they tell the story of a global society on the move — and connections made in the sky.

One jet, six legs

Registration number: N982AT

Model: Boeing 717-200

Length: 124 feet

Wingspan: 93.3 feet

Delivered: December 19, 2002

Maximum takeoff weight: 110,000 pounds

Nonstop range: Up to 1,430 nautical miles

Typical cruise speed at 34,200 feet: 504 mph

Maximum fuel capacity: 24,609 pounds

Engines: Rolls-Royce

Maximum thrust: 18,500 pounds

Seats: 117

8:49 a.m.Leg 1

Flight 10

Origin: Atlanta

Destination: Memphis

Nautical miles: 285

Departure: 8:49 a.m. ET

Scheduled: 8:50 a.m. ET

Arrival: 9:00 a.m. CT

Scheduled: 9:13 a.m. CT

Passengers: 97

No-shows: 6

Pilot: Capt. Mike Sherman

Co-pilot: First Officer Steven Nagy

Flight attendants: Chasiti Anderson, Selina Menowski, Tyk Phillips

8:49 a.m.On board

Seat: 19A

Name: Ron Chawkins

Age: 52

Decked out in a "Good Beer" T-shirt, his arms covered with tattoos, Ron Chawkins is heading to Memphis to expand his business.

His company, Symphony Salvage: Cash for Clothes, buys clothing from churches, temples and thrift stores for 12 cents a pound and ships it to Central and South America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where it's sold.

He travels twice a week in the United States and then every other week to the company's locations outside the country.

"Right now I'm kind of excited, because it's a new venture for us to go into Memphis," he says. As for flying: "It's almost a little bit of hesitancy: What should I expect getting onto the plane, as far as delays and people sitting next to me?"

His original tattoo was a Harley-Davidson eagle "back in 1976 or 1977." He's working on his favorite tatt: a Buddha on a surfboard with his daughters' birthdays on it.

8:49 a.m.On board

Seat: 29F

Name: Roc Howard

Age: 51

Born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Roc Howard is the 10th of 14 children. He picked cotton as a boy in the Mississippi Delta, worked in finance at the White House and now works in finance at the Department of Homeland Security.

The day of this flight is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and that's not lost on him. "I've been lucky in that I've seen both worlds," Howard says. "Working at Homeland Security and the White House, it's a different, different world than what I grew up in."

He's headed home for a family reunion in Mound Bayou. He flies into Memphis and will drive the rest of the way. He hopes to get some golf in before lapping up tall tales and barbecue with family. It'll be the first time he's seen most everyone since his mother died last year at 82.

"My mother raised us all on her own," he says. "Even today, I don't know how she did it."

8:49 a.m.On board

Seats: 30D, 30F

Names: Karina Massey, Haylee Massey

Age: 28, 19 months

In the next-to-last row, overlooking the engines, Karina Massey tries to keep her daughter occupied.

They are headed to Memphis to spend time with relatives. Young Haylee will meet her great-grandparents for the first time.

"I'm really excited," Karina says. "I haven't seen my family in three years."

Massey came to the United States from Chile five years ago and found a job in Macon, Georgia, as a PE teacher.

"I had heard that Southern people don't really like immigrants," she says. "But it's not really been like that. I haven't had that problem at all."

She and Haylee will eventually head to Dallas, where her husband awaits. He works for Southwest and recently moved there. The couple are doing a commuter marriage until their house in Macon sells.

8:49 a.m.On board

Job: Flight attendant

Name: Chasiti Anderson

Age: 32

Hi. Glad to have you aboard. Hola. Guten Tag. Good morning.

As a flight attendant for eight years, Chasiti Anderson has five different greetings for passengers.

Her broad, engaging smile provides an air of comfort. The job has allowed her to see the world, and the flexible schedule lets her be active in charities to help at-risk youth. "I love everything about flying."

Whether or not flight attendants hang out together outside the plane, she says, "depends on if we like each other."

9:46 a.m.Leg 2

Flight 425

Origin: Memphis

Destination: Atlanta

Nautical miles: 285

Departure: 9:46 a.m. CT

Scheduled: 9:48 a.m. CT

Arrival: 11:55 a.m. ET

Scheduled: 12:05 p.m. ET

Passengers: 84

No-shows: 1

Pilot: Capt. Mike Sherman

Co-pilot: First Officer Steven Nagy

Flight attendants: Chasiti Anderson, Selina Menowski, Tyk Phillips

9:46 a.m.On board

Seats: 11E, 11F

Names: Jim and Julieanne Goodwin

Ages: 53, 52

The Goodwins can hardly contain their excitement about this trip. "Everything seems less painful than usual," says Jim.

Their final destination is Denver to see their 22-year-old son, John, at the University of Colorado. They'll be joined by their 23-year-old daughter, Anne – a full family affair in the Rockies.

The couple are from Tupelo, Mississippi. "You know, Elvis is, too," says Julieanne.

What would a flight out of Memphis be if someone didn't invoke the name of the King of Rock 'n' Roll?

9:46 a.m.On board

Seat: 3F

Name: Zorika Baylor

Age: 38

At least one pilot and several flight attendants are commuting to Atlanta aboard this flight, including Zorika Baylor. She grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, before moving to Memphis to work as a flight attendant eight years ago.

She'll be starting the first leg of a three-day trip when she arrives in Atlanta. She's not sure where her travels will take her yet; she'll learn that when she clocks in.

"I always commute," she says. "That's the only way I can get to work."

Commuting by plane doesn't bother her. She likes the flexibility of the job, especially with a 2-year-old daughter. "Like this month, I had 22 days off. Where can you go and have 22 days off?"

Her routine is to pack her bags and snacks the night before she leaves. She sets two alarm clocks to make sure she doesn't miss her commuter flight. "You have to be a reliable person," she says.

She's gotten so accustomed to flying that sometimes she looks out the window just to remind herself she's 30,000 feet in the air.

9:46 a.m.On board

Seat: 30F

Name: Ron Nelson

Age: 51

A Federal Aviation Administration employee, Ron Nelson is headed to Atlanta as a part of an interview panel for job openings. He loves the ease of air travel.

"From the time you get out of your vehicle to the curb to check your bag," he says, "I like everything about it. I do a lot of driving for travel, too, so when I have the opportunity to do air travel, it's relaxing for me.

"It's almost a treat to be able to sit back and let somebody else take care of the travel for me."

9:46 a.m.On board

Job: Flight attendant

Name: Selina Menowski

Age: 51

Born and raised in small-town Georgia, Selina Menowski ran a custom fiberglass business for 20 years before retiring. Ambitious all her life, she suddenly found herself with cabin fever. "I got bored sitting at home and said, 'What can I do?'"

She'd always wanted to be a flight attendant and figured, Why not? She's served as one for the last seven years and says, "I absolutely love my job. It's so much fun." Even if not everyone appreciates her smile and chipper voice.

At the end this flight, she tells a young toddler that he's a "cutie pie." He pouts and stomps off: "I'm not a cutie pie." She laughs.

12:42 p.m.Leg 3

Flight 163

Origin: Atlanta

Destination: Jacksonville, Florida

Nautical miles: 270

Departure: 12:42 p.m. ET

Scheduled: 12:45 p.m. ET

Arrival: 1:44 p.m. ET

Scheduled: 1:52 p.m. ET

Passengers: 51

No-shows: 6

Pilot: Capt. Mike Sherman

Co-pilot: First Officer Steven Nagy

Flight attendants: Chasiti Anderson, Selina Menowski, Tyk Phillips

12:42 p.m.On board

Seat: 28F

Name: Dexter Kluttz

Age: 60

Dexter Kluttz started his day at his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he's now making the journey to Jacksonville to meet up with a boyhood friend. Ever since they were 20, the two have traveled to fish and party. Their mancation delegation used to number six, but deaths have dwindled the group to two.

Kluttz and his friend will drive to the Carolinas. The plan: deep-sea fishing off Cape Hatteras or Myrtle Beach. They've been plotting the trip for a year and a half.

"The thing about it is, the fish don't matter," he says. "It's just basically about getting together again. It becomes more important as you get older."

Their best mancation was in Germany when all six were still alive. What made that trip special?

Kluttz bristles, chuckles and mentions the unwritten rule of mancationing: What happens on the road stays on the road. "Some things you just leave alone," he says. "Let's just say it was a good time."

12:42 p.m.On board

Seat: 21F

Name: Keith Walker

Age: 47

Based out of Austin, Texas, Keith Walker travels frequently for work.

"I fly 35 to 40 times a year, so you have to enjoy it," he says. "The people I meet are enjoyable. You can't allow the frustrations of flying to be an issue. That just is what it is."

Walker works for a nonprofit agency that helps put veterans with disabilities back to work.

His life changed in 2009 when he met an Iraq War veteran whose carotid artery was severed by an IED explosion. The loss of blood left him with mid-term memory loss.

For Walker, that meeting "put everything into perspective in the blink of an eye."

He left a job with a large defense contractor and moved to his current company, which employs 1,400 people, including more than 900 with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities.

"Our company mission is to create a job opportunity for every type of disability."

12:42 p.m.On board

Job: Flight attendant

Name: Tyk Phillips

Age: 64

He used to live the life of a rocker.

From 1963 to 1973, Tyk Phillips played in a band that traveled the nation. After that, he promoted concerts for nearly a decade, then worked special effects lighting for rock bands for two more decades.

"Had a ball," he says. "We did The Who tours. Neil Diamond. Barry Manilow. Journey. Rod Stewart. ZZ Top. You name them, we've done them."

He started for AirTran in management before trading it in six years ago "to do something fun."

Now, he likes studying people on planes, striking up conversations and hearing their stories.

2:24 p.m.Leg 4

Flight 339

Origin: Jacksonville

Destination: Atlanta

Nautical miles: 270

Departure: 2:24 p.m. ET

Scheduled: 2:27 p.m. ET

Arrival: 3:37 p.m. ET

Scheduled: 3:36 p.m. ET

Passengers: 97

No-shows: 3

Pilot: Capt. Joe Ryan

Co-pilot: First Officer Rico McGee

Flight attendants: Shay Sanders, Trina Holden, Cherrie Providence

2:24 p.m.On board

Seat: 27D

Name: Lillian Eversly

Age: 61

Lillian Eversly was among the first passengers to board, but Eversly would prefer not to be making this journey.

"Right now, I'm very emotional. I'm going home to Trenton, New Jersey, to bury my sister. It was a sudden heart attack, so it's not a pleasant trip for me."

There were six brothers and sisters. Eleanor Culbreath, 69, was the second to pass. Lillian and Eleanor would take turns visiting each other. One year, Eleanor would come to Brunswick, Georgia, to stay with Lillian; the next year, Lillian would visit her older sister in New York, where she lived. Their family home was in Trenton, where her sister will be buried.

"We were very, very close," she says. "I feel a tremendous loss and void and hurt."

The two didn't visit this past summer. When they last spoke by phone, they talked about their children and grandchildren.

Eversly pauses, gathers her thoughts. "I didn't expect to be going home for a funeral, but such is life."

2:24 p.m.On board

Seats: 30A, 30C, 30D, 30F

Names: Steven Spahn, Brittany Norris, Kyle English, Jessica Woodrum

Ages: 23, 25, 27, 29

Brittany Norris is a bit jittery. "I love flying. I just don't like the takeoff and landing portions."

She's surrounded by three friends, helping ease her anxiety. They're headed to Boston for a few days after finding cheap round-trip tickets.

They met at a church near Florida's Atlantic coast, but they're not exactly holy rollers, says Jessica Woodrum. Their main agenda: beer, baseball and lobster rolls.

"That's all you need out of a vacation, right?" she says. "It's not like we're looking to go get wasted in the streets. Beer is wonderful!"

Steven Spahn agrees. "Yep, if we can end on that, that's perfect."

Kyle English is looking forward to a game at Fenway Park. "I finally get to unplug," he says.

As the plane begins its final descent, Brittany's nerves kick in. A smiling Kyle motions that the jet is about to take a nosedive.

A few minutes later, safely on the ground, the interior lights begin flashing for no apparent reason. "Oh, my God, is this the Twilight Zone?" Brittany asks.

2:24 p.m.On board

Job: Flight attendant

Name: Shay Sanders

Age: 41

Shay Sanders traded in a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for flying in June 2004.

"It's been a life-changing experience, traveling and seeing the world."

She had worked for United Airlines after high school for almost four years before moving to the insurance field, where she spent a decade.

Once you work in the travel industry, she says, you get hooked. "The travel industry makes you gravitate towards it."

4:22 p.m.Leg 5

Flight 164

Origin: Atlanta

Destination: Indianapolis

Nautical miles: 377

Departure: 4:22 p.m.

Scheduled: 4:20 p.m. ET

Arrival: 5:53 p.m.

Scheduled: 5:49 p.m.

Passengers: 112

No-shows: 6

Pilot: Capt. Joe Ryan

Co-pilot: First Officer Rico McGee

Flight attendants: Shay Sanders, Trina Holden, Cherrie Providence

4:22 p.m.On board

Seats: 18D, 18E, 18F

Names: Bethany and Adam Eyrich, Madison Eyrich, Jeff Eyrich

Ages: 30, 7 months, 4, 25

Bethany Eyrich paces the aisle bouncing Adam in her arms, trying to soothe the toddler. His bib reads: "Trouble is my middle name." A resident of Decatur, Georgia, she is also traveling with her husband, Jeff, and 4-year-old daughter Madison.

The family is on the way to the National Sweetcorn Festival, where people will boil 20 to 30 tons of sweet corn using antique steam engines. Held in Jeff's hometown of Hoopeston, Illinois, the festival has been part of his life since he was a boy. The family has taken part the past nine years.

"Traveling is always a little stressful to get there, but there's always a lot of anticipation to see family," Bethany says. "This is how we do it."

4:22 p.m.On board

Seat: 2F

Names: Lindsey and Banks Olmstead

Ages: 23, 2 months

Her 2-month-old on her lap, Lindsey Olmstead is excited to be going home after visiting Banks' great-grandparents and grandmother in Atlanta.

"We're just ready to get back home to Dad," she says. "Been gone for about a week."

The trip to Atlanta was a bit nerve-wracking, she says, but this time around Banks is acting "perfect."

4:22 p.m.On board

Seats: 31C, 31D

Names: Andrea and Elliana Wagner, Ron and Ariella Wagner

Ages: 28, 3 months, 38, 23 months

In the last row, four people occupy two seats: Ron and Andrea Wagner have their two young daughters in their laps.

Their day began in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after a weekend visiting Andrea's grandfather for his 86th birthday. "He got to see his great-grandbabies," she says.

But they're frustrated on this leg home. They've always liked AirTran, but this trip the family has gotten moved from multiple seats.

"Every time we sit down we have to get up and move, or they tell us we're not checked in," Ron says. "It's just a big circle of emotion."

Adds Andrea: "They've changed our seats on every flight we've been on."

6:30 p.m.Leg 6

Flight 324

Origin: Indianapolis

Destination: Atlanta

Nautical miles: 377

Departure: 6:30 p.m. ET

Scheduled: 6:30 p.m. ET

Arrival: 8:06 p.m. ET

Scheduled: 7:58 p.m. ET

Passengers: 114

No-shows: 2

Pilot: Capt. Joe Ryan

Co-pilot: First Officer Rico McGee

Flight attendants: Shay Sanders, Trina Holden, Cherrie Providence

6:30 p.m.On board

Seat: 1F

Name: Linda Clemons

Age: 55

A body language expert, Linda Clemons is headed to Palm Beach, Florida, for a black enterprise conference. She travels 20 days a month, and planes offer her opportunities for research.

"I've got a world of people to be able to be my case studies, just to look at, and I love it in real time," Clemons says. "When I'm flying, I'm just like a child at the holidays."

Can a plane serve as a metaphor for our global society?

"No matter where we are in the world," she says, "the emotions are the same – fear, surprise, happiness, sadness. But it's so interesting to see how it's displayed on a plane."

Among her clientele are salespeople, lawyers, girlfriends, boyfriends or spouses "trying to read their significant others."

"I have folks invite me over to be a human lie detector."

Quick with a smile and a laugh, Clemons explains one of her tricks:

"I watch couples. I can always tell, if they're sitting beside each other, if they're in love … because the way they sit will form a heart. If there is dissension or stress, I can see that."

6:30 p.m.On board

Job: Flight attendant

Name: Trina Holden

Age: 34

Passengers tell her all the time she looks like Rihanna.

Trina Holden has been a flight attendant for 14 years. She was aboard a Continental jet from Newark, New Jersey, to Los Angeles on September 11, 2001, when news of the terrorist attacks came.

She was in the bathroom when her crew members knocked. "I was like, 'Can I get a moment of peace?'" They were told something had happened to planes in New York and that air traffic control was doing its best to find a place for their plane to land. They eventually touched down in Omaha, Nebraska.

"I'll never forget it," she says. "Flying has definitely changed after that. It will never be the same.

"But at the end of the day it definitely beats sitting in an office doing a 9 to 5. … I know that this is where I need to be."

6:30 p.m.On board

Job: Flight attendant

Name: Cherrie Providence

Age: 49

A flight attendant for seven years, Cherrie Providence has been mesmerized by air travel ever since she was 10 and boarded a plane from Trinidad to New York City – a stay that ended up being permanent.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Air travel, she says, "brings us together. Because here it is, we're in this tube and I'm pretty sure if we were to do a survey, we'd have people from all walks of life. Air travel has enabled the world to come together as one and to take you to different parts in such a short space of time."

11:20 a.m.How to greet a woman

Vladimir Danaila holds a large bouquet of bright-colored flowers wrapped in red paper. He and his mother are waiting in the arrivals area for an old family friend they've known for decades. The last time they saw her was six years ago in their home country of Moldova, more than 5,400 miles away.

"Where I come from, if you are meeting a woman, it doesn't matter if she's a girlfriend or not, you bring flowers," he says. "Sometimes you don't even have money for the next meal. You always have to buy flowers."

5:36 p.m.The traveling pink box

The bright pink signature box he carries makes Brian Setzler pop out against the muted backdrop of an empty Delta baggage claim carousel. The traveler has been getting attention for the loot all day.

"I walk through the airport and people are like, 'Oh, Voodoo Doughnuts!' " he says of the hot spot in his hometown, Portland, Oregon. Inside the box are treats for the 20-year-old daughter he's come to visit, who's interning in a law office in Atlanta this summer. Lucky for her, the handmade doughnuts actually made it past salivating travelers.

8:32 p.m.Getting runway-ready

Irene Atkins spends her time at ATL surrounded by bras, panties and body shapers. She works at the Spanx store on Concourse E.

She likes to watch the wide eyes of travelers who gawk in the windows as they stroll by. But the shoppers who come in — her favorites being the "older, seasoned" set – make her day.

Her job is to help them feel good about themselves. She tells the story of one woman who strolled in, having never tried on Spanx before, and insisted on diving into the heavy-duty equipment, the super-slimming items worn by Hollywood stars — which can be a struggle to put on. Atkins knew this wouldn't go well, but the customer needed to find out for herself.

"I hear her in the dressing room saying, 'Help! Help!'" Atkins remembers. "And she came out crying, 'Why do we women do this to ourselves?'"

Atkins says she was standing ready, armed with words of comfort and an age-friendly, less intense, body-shaping answer.

3:25 a.m.Finding peace and sleep

Anna Rebmann arrived hours earlier with a mission: to find sleep. The atrium didn't work; it was too noisy. A sign for the surely quiet Interfaith Chapel one floor up gave her hope, but it was closed. Then she spotted a security guard dozing on a bench by an elevator. If that area was good enough for him, it would be good enough for her.

With the bike lock she always brings with her, she tied her two pieces of luggage and a guitar together so they would be hard to swipe. And then she settled in.

Her wait is long. The Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, native arrived from Baltimore at 9:20 p.m. Her flight to London – via Toronto – doesn't leave until 11:30 a.m. So she's made herself comfy, a square cotton pillow beneath her head and a magenta cloak draped over her like a blanket.

She could've booked a hotel room, but she didn't want to bother. What's a night in the airport when you're heading off to Europe for four months?

1:40 a.m.Free parking's worth it

A burst of people pours out of the MARTA station. Ollie Locklear Jr. and his wife, Lori, have come from Cedartown, Georgia, about 75 miles northwest of the airport.

Locklear used to work for MARTA, and among the perks of retirement are free rides and parking at stations. So the couple always drive to the closest MARTA station to their house and take the train to the airport. Never mind that they had to catch one of the last trains of the night, putting them at the airport a full four hours ahead of their flight.

"We're going to see our new grandbaby," Lori Locklear says of their 5:45 a.m. US Airways flight to San Diego. "So all this is worth it."

8:47 p.m.One more glimpse and a prayer

A woman stands behind the main security checkpoint in the Domestic Terminal, craning her neck. She wants to watch her daughter and grandchildren for as long as she can.

They're flying home to Richmond, Virginia, and that makes her nervous.

"You can't never be too cautious nowadays," says Ann, 65. "So I sent them a prayer."

Ann is heading back to Richmond, too. But she'll travel by bus. She's made the trip that way many times.

"I ain't never thought about flying. It's faster, I guess. But I like sightseeing," she says. "I guess I just feel more comfortable on the ground."

Past the ropes, the TSA desks, the conveyor belts and body scanners, ¬ she can still see her daughter and grandchildren. They step onto the escalator and disappear. Only then does she walk away, stealing one more glimpse over her shoulder.

5:13 p.m.Mother's — and father's — little helper

As boarding announcements for a flight to Paris begin in the International Terminal, a mother serves up spoonfuls of pink syrup to her kids and her friend's kids. It's Nausicalm, an over-the-counter drug to prevent motion sickness that – like Dramamine – can also cause drowsiness. Her husband laughs, admitting that they might be doing this more for themselves than for the four children.

"We were just discussing how much medicine to give the kids so they sleep on the plane," Jean-Marc Alfassa says, his French accent thick.

As the two families make their way to the gate for their long flight home, Alfassa's 4-year-old daughter, Camille, and her 3-year-old friend, Manon, bounce along. They hold hands and giggle – not yet feeling what will soon hit them.

Manon and her brother Tom, 5, pass out before takeoff. Camille soon follows. But Alfassa's son Louis, 6, has other plans.

"Unfortunately, I have to say that the onboard entertainment was stronger than the syrup," Alfassa says later. Next time Louis will be treated to a double dose.

10:55 p.m.The price of perks

The upside of working for a Delta Air Lines subsidiary like DAL Global Services? Free flights. The downside? Flying standby means Trevor Joseph, 27, is in for a long, long night.

He arrived from Belize City nearly six hours ago. And it'll be another eight hours before he can catch a flight to New York's LaGuardia airport. So with his red in-flight Delta blanket draped over him, he hunkers down, splayed uncomfortably across a bunch of seats at gate A19.

"I'm not mad. I had an option to buy a ticket," he says, brushing his dreadlocks from his face. "I'll just talk on the phone till I get sleepy."

He pops in his earbuds and settles in. He doesn't have a lot of company, but he's certainly not alone. A family has claimed a corner several gates down, the children already sound asleep.

2:15 p.m.Off to DragonCon

Young newlyweds Richard and Kristen Faith stand near the North Terminal baggage carousel looking travel-weary but relieved to be reunited with their bags. After all, you can't pick up a battle axe just anywhere.

They've flown in from Albuquerque, New Mexico, via Houston on Southwest Airlines so they can attend DragonCon, the annual gathering of geek culture. Their luggage is full of costumes – including a replica of an axe wielded by a character from "Fray," the Joss Whedon-penned comic book – which explains the six checked bags, plus two carry-on backpacks.

Armed with what they need, the couple steer their laden cart toward the curb, a taxi and anticipated DragonCon glory.

8:06 a.m.Carrying faith home

A pack of clean-cut and strapping young men dressed in ties and black suits is hard to miss. As soon as you catch a glimpse of the nametags pinned to their jackets – each begins with the word "Elder" — there's no mistaking who they are: Mormon missionaries.

For two years they've dedicated their lives and energies to serving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a rite of passage in their community. Now the men are on their way home to Utah. Some were in Salta, Argentina, the others in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Understandably, they're excited but anxious about returning home.

"You wonder things like, is Facebook still cool anymore? I asked my sister and she said, 'No, not really,'" says Elder Parker Jared Harmon, 21.

Keeping up with family in the Internet age hasn't been too hard, but otherwise they've been in their own worlds. Being a missionary is tough at first, but you get the hang of it after a few weeks, says Elder Greg Santi, 21. Before long, you're hitting your goal of six baptisms a week.

Before they board, they graciously pose for a picture and offer to share some information about their faith.

9:50 a.m.Dressed for comfort

Shauna Byrnes and her friend Ginger Cassidy both claim they're dressed for comfort for their flight to the Dominican Republic resort town of Punta Cana. Laid-back and casual, Cassidy is wearing sweat pants and sandals from Target.

With her dyed red hair, nose-ring and tattoos snaking up her neck and down her arms, Byrnes shops from a different aisle.

"I'm kind of a shoe freak, so this is pretty standard," she says of her tall flowered platform wedges from Target, which reveal the dragon peeking out from her red pants. And yes, she swears they're comfortable.

10:50 a.m.High-heeled essentials

Sabrina Wilder marches to the beat of her own drum. A tattoo on her arm, "Me against the mother-f**king world," confirms that philosophy. Luckily, she works in a profession that values individualism, she says, laughing, as she rides the escalator to the Concourse C smoking lounge.

The hairstylist from Chicago is on her way to visit friends in Montgomery, Alabama, in her first trip to the South. She's sporting a pair of studded strappy lime-green heels with orange platforms that she bought during a trip to New York City earlier this year.

Even when she's home, Wilder wears heels. "I clack, clack all around the house."

She feels naked without them.

5:15 a.m.Eating local, sort of

"What'll ya have, what'll ya have?"

Monique Wheeler hollers the signature catchphrase of The Varsity, an 85-year-old Atlanta fast-food institution, as bleary-eyed passengers who've just cleared security trickle up the escalators to Concourse C.

Wheeler, 24, wakes up at 2:30 a.m. to make her morning shift here. Like passengers, she too has to go through security every day.

None of the stores in the airport is independently owned; local institutions like The Varsity or Sweetwater Brewery simply license their names to the concessionaires that run the restaurants.

The Varsity splits a kitchen with Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A. Loretta Evans, on the Chick-fil-A end of the kitchen, doesn't have to ask her customers what they'll have.

She knows.

She's busy making biscuits for the breakfast rush; the store sells about a thousand a day.

7:30 a.m.How do you say 'over easy' in Chinese?

The third order of the morning at P.F. Chang's is Kung Pao chicken.

Chinese for breakfast? It might not be as strange as it sounds – who knows what time zone a customer is coming from?

This outpost on Concourse A, which opened only the day before in an old Chili's space, is the first P.F. Chang's in the country to test a breakfast menu. But the full menu is also available during all operating hours.

"It's an all-day affair," says Nico Roldan, regional chef for the Southeast. There's not the normal after-lunch lull typical of nonairport restaurants, he says.

"Once we're busy, we never stop."

10:47 p.m.Last call

A customer finishes his drink just before closing time at the Atlanta Hawks Bar & Grill on Concourse A.

A delayed flight does more than strand passengers. It keeps employees on the job. Concessionaires are bound by contract to remain open until the last departing flight leaves the concourse.

8:15 a.m.Her first flight of the day

Hi. Glad to have you aboard. Hola. Guten tag. Good morning.

Flight attendant Chasiti Anderson has five greetings for passengers, and this morning she's working them as people board AirTran Flight 10 to Memphis at Atlanta's gate C12.

Her broad, engaging smile provides an air of comfort. The job has allowed her to see the world, and the flexible schedule lets her be active in charities to help at-risk youth. "I love everything about flying," she says.

This is the first of three flights for Anderson and her crewmates today on board N982AT, a Boeing 717-200 with 117 seats.

Among her passengers is Roc Howard, 51, seated in 29F.

Born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Howard is the 10th of 14 children. He picked cotton as a boy in the Mississippi Delta, worked in finance at the White House and now works in finance at the Department of Homeland Security.

The day of this flight is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and that's not lost on him. "I've been lucky in that I've seen both worlds," Howard says. "Working at Homeland Security and the White House, it's a different, different world than what I grew up in."

He's headed home for a family reunion in Mound Bayou. He flies into Memphis and will drive the rest of the way. He hopes to get some golf in before eating up barbecue and tall tales with family. It'll be the first time he's seen most everyone since his mother died last year at 82.

"My mother raised us all on her own," he says. "Even today, I don't know how she did it."

11:55 a.m.Life of a rocker

Jim and Julieanne Goodwin can hardly contain their excitement about this trip. "Everything seems less painful than usual," says Jim.

They're on AirTran Flight 425 from Memphis to Atlanta, but their final destination is Denver, where they'll see their 22-year-old son, John, at the University of Colorado. They'll be joined by their 23-year-old daughter, Anne, for a full family affair in the Rockies.

The couple are from Tupelo, Mississippi. "You know, Elvis is, too," says Julieanne.

What would a flight out of Memphis be if someone didn't invoke the name of the King of Rock 'n' Roll?

Flight attendant Tyk Phillips, 64, used to live the life of a rocker.

From 1963 to 1973, Phillips played in a band that traveled the nation. After that, he promoted concerts for nearly a decade and then worked special effects lighting for rock bands for two more decades.

"Had a ball," he says. "We did The Who tours. Neil Diamond. Barry Manilow. Journey. Rod Stewart. ZZ Top. You name them, we've done them."

He started for AirTran in management before trading it in six years ago "to do something fun."

Now, he likes studying people on planes, striking up conversations and hearing their stories.

As the flight arrives in Atlanta at 11:55 a.m., flight attendant Selina Menowski tells a young toddler that he's a "cutie pie." He pouts and stomps off: "I'm not a cutie pie." She laughs.

12:42 p.m.'Some things you just leave alone'

Dexter Kluttz, 60, is in seat 28F as AirTran Flight 163 heads to Jacksonville from Atlanta. He started his day at his home in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and now he's flying to Florida to meet up with a boyhood friend.

Ever since they were 20, the two have traveled to fish and party. Their mancation delegation used to number six, but deaths have cut the group to two.

Kluttz and his friend will drive to the Carolinas. The plan: deep-sea fishing off Cape Hatteras or Myrtle Beach. They've been plotting the trip for a year and a half.

"The thing about it is, the fish don't matter," he says. "It's just basically about getting together again. It becomes more important as you get older."

Their best mancation was in Germany when all six were still alive.

What made that trip special?

Kluttz bristles, chuckles and mentions the unwritten rule of mancationing: What happens on the road stays on the road. "Some things you just leave alone," he says. "Let's just say it was a good time."

As the jet reaches a cruising altitude of 27,000 feet, Keith Walker, 47, rests in seat 21F.

Based out of Austin, Texas, Walker travels frequently for work.

"I fly 35 to 40 times a year, so you have to enjoy it," he says. "The people I meet are enjoyable. You can't allow the frustrations of flying to be an issue. That just is what it is."

Walker works for a nonprofit agency that helps put veterans with disabilities back to work.

His life changed in 2009 when he met an Iraq War veteran whose carotid artery was severed by an IED explosion. The loss of blood left him with mid-term memory loss.

For Walker, that meeting "put everything into perspective in the blink of an eye."

He left a job with a large defense contractor and moved to his current company, which employs 1,400 people, including more than 900 with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities.

"Our company mission is to create a job opportunity for every type of disability."

2:24 p.m.The saddest trip

Lillian Eversly would prefer not to be making this journey.

"Right now, I'm very emotional. I'm going home to Trenton, New Jersey, to bury my sister," said Eversly, 61. "It was a sudden heart attack, so it's not a pleasant trip for me."

There were six brothers and sisters. Eleanor Culbreath, 69, was the second to pass. Lillian and Eleanor would take turns visiting each other. One year, Eleanor would come to Brunswick, Georgia, to stay with Lillian; the next year, Lillian would visit her older sister in New York, where she lived. Their family home was in Trenton, where her sister will be buried.

"We were very, very close," she says. "I feel a tremendous loss and void and hurt."

The two didn't visit this past summer. When they last spoke by phone, they talked about their children and grandchildren.

Eversly pauses, gathers her thoughts. "I didn't expect to be going home for a funeral, but such is life."

At 2:24 p.m., AirTran Flight 339 departs Jacksonville for Atlanta, where Eversly will change planes for the long trip home.

4:20 p.m.The toddler express

Immediately, something becomes obvious on AirTran Flight 164 to Indianapolis, scheduled to leave Atlanta at 4:20 p.m. There are at least a dozen kids under the age of 3, seemingly all over the place.

This can strike fear in even the most experienced traveler: Will a screaming kid be sitting next to me?

All 117 seats fill up, too, the most full this 717-200 has been all day.

Flight attendant Trina Holden — passengers tell her all the time she looks like Rihanna — takes it all in stride.

She's been a flight attendant for 14 years and was aboard a Continental jet from Newark, New Jersey, to Los Angeles on September 11, 2001, when news of the terrorist attacks came.

She was in the bathroom when her crew members knocked. "I was like, 'Can I get a moment of peace?' " They were told that something had happened to planes in New York and that air traffic control was doing its best to find a place for their plane to land. They eventually touched down in Omaha, Nebraska.

"I'll never forget it," she says. "Flying has definitely changed after that. It will never be the same.

"But at the end of the day, it definitely beats sitting in an office doing a 9 to 5. ... I know that this is where I need to be."

5:38 a.m.Name that town

Louiza Goulart is overwhelmed. It's her first time in the United States.

She and her husband, Silvanio Pereira Santos, have traveled 4,100 miles from their home in rural Goias, in Brazil's highlands, to live close to their son in Austin, Texas.

A retired couple, they are drawn to the United States not by the promise of work, or safety from oppression, but by the lure of travel, children and grandchildren.

"Everything is so big," Louiza says in Portuguese.

She and Silvanio are looking forward to settling in Texas and exploring the United States.

What do they want to see most?

Louiza scrunches up her face as she tries to remember a city's name. A pause, but she remembers.

"Boston," she finally says with a smile.

12:03 p.m.Seizing the spinach

Korean Airlines Flight 35 arrives from Seoul, and David Pline and his Customs and Border Protection colleagues are about to have their hands full: suitcases brimming with exotic produce.

"Is this pepper?" Pline asks a Virginia resident who has just returned from his native Vietnam.

The man isn't sure.

Then Pline notices a bag inside a bag that seems particularly heavy.

"Is there anything in there?" Again, the man doesn't know, saying he didn't pack everything himself.

Pline slices the bag open with a small knife. He finds clothes – lots and lots of clothes – tightly packed inside.

And while there's plenty of food here, too, Pline doesn't find much else of concern. The only thing he takes is a single package of water spinach.

The man walks away smiling, with plenty of other things left to bring home to family and friends.

12:49 p.m.Catching cow's heads

This was Diedra Duke's introduction to life as an agriculture specialist in customs: On her first day at work, a Nigerian woman told Duke there was a cow's head inside her luggage.

Sure enough, when Duke opened the bag she found decaying flesh and squirming maggots.

"It was an experience," Duke recalls, with a big smile and bigger sense of understatement.

Twelve years later, Duke isn't getting her hands dirty in the same way anymore. At 34, she's now a chief in the agriculture division of Customs and Border Protection.

She oversees a group of specialists with science backgrounds who are asked to detect minuscule pests, recognize all types of flora and fauna, and grasp how rules differ depending on where the goods came from.

Humans aren't the only ones assigned to this task: Numerous beagles and one Labrador prowl and sniff to make sure every item is up to snuff.

Their work goes well beyond forcing a traveler to toss out her apple. These specialists think a few steps ahead. What happens if an invasive animal or plant species is introduced into the United States? How about a pest that, absent any natural predators, gobbles up crops and chews through trees?

Duke's team is the first line of defense.

Members need to have one thing in common: "You have to have a love, a passion. Find that bug, that disease, and stop it."

10:27 a.m.Snakes on a plane

Bugs, weird food, dirty laundry, mice.

Tarra Rankin has seen just about everything go through the airport. She generally works in the oversize luggage area in the International Terminal. After nine years with TSA, the slight woman from Niagara Falls, New York, says little surprises her any more.

"You name it, I've seen it," she says. "But you can't be scared, even if it says it's a box of snakes."

She's gotten good at guessing which suitcases come from which country. People traveling often bring food from home for comfort. The luggage from India smells like curry, she says. Italians and Spaniards like their stinky cheese.

"I don't mind at all," she says. "I find it all very interesting."

With the right paperwork, guns can go into checked baggage. Often, though, weapons turn up in carry-ons. TSA in Atlanta leads the country for finding the most weapons — 68 guns just this year, as of this August day. (By comparison, TSA officers at JFK in New York have found seven.)

"One guy even came up to me and opened his jacket to show his gun," Rankin says. "He said he completely forgot. When that happens, I tell them what their options are and try to help out. The key to doing well in this job is to stay flexible and level-headed."

7:09 a.m.Boots on the ground

Hunters and explorers often bring back more from their trips abroad than just memories and mementos. These can include viruses and bacteria that pose a threat to U.S. agriculture or health.

To guard against this, customs officers spray down the boots of returning hunters with a disinfectant called Virkon S. Today, a wet, muddy mess collects at the bottom of a gray tote as a customs officer sprays a pair of boots belonging to a hunter back from South Africa.

It's the same treatment military vehicles returning from overseas duty get, port director Stephen Kremer says.

1:17 p.m.The world comes to him

Nick Sengchanh has been around the world as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines. Now, as he sits in the Customs Hall, the world is coming to him.

On this day, travelers from places from Aruba to Zurich file past a bevy of interpreters paid by the city of Atlanta and walk up to booths, where they are met by Customs and Border Protection officers like Sengchanh. To his left, people with U.S. passports stand in their own set of lines.

He doesn't remember it much, but Sengchanh was once a newcomer to the United States himself. Born in 1968 to a Laotian father and Thai mother, he immigrated with his family in the mid-1970s. Their first stop was Nashville, before moving a few years later to Atlanta. Three decades later, Sengchanh is in many ways a Southern gentleman – but one who speaks fluent Lao and Thai.

As a flight attendant for Northwest, he'd often help passengers fill out the paperwork they need to officially get into the United States.

Asked to describe the best part of his current job, an answer comes easily: "When a new immigrant is coming into the United States."

However they end up in this country, he adds, "It's like winning the lottery."

Being a flight attendant was fun while he was single, but it didn't make as much sense once he got married. He followed a friend's advice and applied for a customs job after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He still travels the world. But nowadays, it's for fun.

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