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TSA misconduct rises, but should travelers worry?

Misconduct among airport screeners jumped 26% in a recent three-year period, but the chances that TSA workers will steal items from traveler baggage is slim, according to the union representing them.

August 04, 2013|By Hugo Martín
  • A 26% jump in misconduct cases among TSA workers over a three-year period stoked debate over their integrity. Above, security screening at Los Angeles International Airport in 2011.
A 26% jump in misconduct cases among TSA workers over a three-year period… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Travelers be warned: Misconduct cases among airport screeners jumped 26% in a recent three-year period.

But the chance of an airport screener pilfering a laptop computer from your bag is still slimmer than winning the lottery, according to the union representing Transportation Security Administration workers.

The debate over the integrity of TSA screeners heated up last week with the release of an audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which found 9,622 cases of misconduct among TSA workers from fiscal 2010 through 2012, with a 26% increase in incidents over that time. The audit scolded the TSA for having weak procedures for reviewing and recording the outcomes of misconduct cases.

The most common offenses among TSA workers — 3,117 over the three years — were attendance and leave violations such as unexcused or excessive absences or tardiness, according to the report. Only a fraction of the cases, 56, were for theft.

Critics including Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) railed at the TSA, noting that 20% of the cases, or 1,936 incidents, were violations of screening and security rules, such as sleeping on duty.

"The report confirms our worst suspicions that TSA employee misconduct has spun out of control," Mica said in a statement.

To David Borer — general counsel to the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents TSA screeners — the audit numbers paint a different picture.

The 1,936 screening- and security-related offenses average out to about 645 incidents a year, he said. With about 56,000 TSA workers across 450 airports, he said, the numbers suggest that only about 1% of employees were involved in such offenses.

The percentage might be even smaller because one employee could be responsible for more than one offense.

"That means that 99% of the employees don't have any security-related misconduct," he said. "That is an A-plus in most places."

Crunching the numbers another way, Borer said the TSA screens about 657 million passengers a year. That means, he said, there has been about one security-related offense per 1 million passengers screened.

Frustration at immigration lines

As lines grow at airport immigration checkpoints, the frustration among international travelers continues to swell.

A trade group for the nation's travel industry is hoping to exploit that frustration to pressure the federal government to hire more U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to speed up those airport lines, thereby encouraging more foreign visitors.

The U.S. Travel Assn. has been going around the country to interview tired, disheveled travelers who have just cleared lengthy lines at such checkpoints. Video clips of those interviews have been posted at

"International travelers visit our country to conduct business, experience our destinations and sites and, most importantly, contribute billions of dollars to our economy," said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Assn.

The lines at airports are only getting longer as air travel climbs.

The number of people traveling by air grew 6% in June from the same month last year, with the biggest growth coming from Africa and the Middle East, according to the International Air Transport Assn., the trade group for the world's airlines.

The effect of the surge in air travel may be showing up at Los Angeles International Airport. At LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal, the maximum wait time in July was 57 minutes, up from 52 minutes the same month last year, according to the Customs and Border Protection.

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