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Airport Security Arrives on Time

Federal screeners will be at all commercial facilities today, a day ahead of schedule. Some lawmakers say the new agency is overstaffed.

November 18, 2002|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The government's hurried, $6-billion overhaul of airport security will meet a major goal today as white-shirted federal screeners take over the job of checking passengers around the country.

As recently as the summer, many doubted that the new Transportation Security Administration could hire, train and deploy more than 30,000 passenger screeners by a Tuesday deadline set by Congress in response to last year's terrorist attacks.

The TSA will meet that goal a day early, a spokeswoman said. The turnaround, while welcome, is winning mostly guarded praise and an incomplete grade. By the end of the year, the TSA must meet the bigger challenge of screening all checked luggage with explosives detection technology. Furthermore, there is still no system for screening airline cargo, a glaring loophole.

"The passenger screening system that we had before was unreliable at best, and today our cargo screening system is certainly not in any kind of shape," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, (R-Texas), new chairwoman of the aviation subcommittee.

With reports that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is at large and still a threat, and with many security improvements yet to be completed, some government officials don't want to overplay accomplishments.

"There is a positive, but wait-and-see attitude about TSA," said Gerald Dillingham, director of aviation issues for the General Accounting Office, the watchdog agency of Congress.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, passenger screening was a dead-end job. Screeners were minimum-wage employees of private security companies, under contract to the airlines. They typically stayed just a few months before seeking better-paying work. There was little incentive to sharpen skills or develop a commitment to the job.

The federal screeners are better trained and earn $23,600 to $35,400 a year, plus benefits. They are part of a law enforcement organization that already spans the country. They have a career path available that can lead to more senior jobs in the TSA or in government.

Frequent fliers say the early line on TSA screeners is that they are polite, thorough -- and numerous. Travelers report airport checkpoints swarming with white shirts.

Todd Hauptli, an airline association lobbyist, recalled an experience last week at a TSA-staffed checkpoint in the Salt Lake City airport. He was asked to take his shoes off so they could be tested for explosives.

"They yelled for a bin runner and three guys bumped into each other trying to get to me first," Hauptli said. "The staffing levels can most charitably be described as generous."

Some lawmakers are concerned about overstaffing at the agency. "There's way too many of them," said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), a critic of the $6.6-billion TSA budget. "They have flooded these airports with screeners and that work force needs to slim down immediately."

But TSA officials say many checkpoints are being simultaneously used for training. New screeners get 60 hours of on-the-job training, in addition to 44 hours in the classroom. The staffing level will eventually go down to five or six per checkpoint lane, TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said.

Many at the TSA believe the agency's accomplishments have not gotten due recognition.

"We put our first passenger screeners on the line April 30 in Baltimore," Johnson said. "You have to give us a little bit of credit here for the magnitude of the job we undertook and the things we've accomplished so far. We are not done, but we are doing what we said we were going to do."

Federal passenger screeners already have taken over at Los Angeles International and John Wayne airports. With 1,600 screeners, LAX has the biggest force of any airport in the country. Both airports also are on track to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for screening checked luggage with explosives detection technology, which will require 22,000 more TSA screeners.

Hiring staff does not seem to be a problem, but airline and airport officials fear there will be long lines of passengers waiting to have their luggage screened in ticket lobbies. The crowds could become a target for terrorists, security experts warn.

Crowding could arise because a significant proportion of checked luggage will have to be opened for testing. This will be particularly true at airports using a technology called Trace detection. A sensor checks for explosives residue on a swab that a screener has applied to the bag or its contents.

Orange County's John Wayne is among a minority of airports that will rely almost exclusively on another, more automated concept. CT (computed tomography) scanners will be built into the airport's baggage conveyor system. Akin to those used by doctors to diagnose tumors, the scanners let operators see into a closed bag. Bags have to be opened only if they trigger an alarm that the operator cannot resolve with closer inspection.

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