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Are We Safer – Part 3: The Screener Workforce

security checkThe screener workforce guards the front door of aviation security.

 

Both prior to and after 9/11 the responsibility to ensure that all passengers and baggage or cargo has been screened prior to being allowed on board an airplane remains the responsibility of the air carrier. Prior to 9/11 the air carriers fulfilled this requirement by contracting it out. There were just a few large firms throughout the world that provided most of the contracted screeners to the air carriers and they were very well-known.

While 9/11 was not the result of a failure of screening, even though the screening industry seemed to take the blame for it, most of us in the industry agreed that screening was woefully inadequate to meet the existing threats. So, after 9/11 the TSA took over the screening function for flights departing within or from the United States and its territories.

Up until 2000, regulatory standards for screener personnel in terms of performance and training were scarce. Essentially, if a screener failed to detect an FAA test weapon they were fired. There was no retraining if you screwed up. You were the employee of a contractor, without a union nor the benefit of due process or progressive discipline, so you were just given the boot and somebody else was hired to replace you. That’s like saying that if a wide receiver drops one pass he’s cut from the team – and, never having even trained him how to catch in the first place. The result is that screeners were very well trained to spot FAA test weapons but ill-trained to spot actual weapons or explosive devices.

Screeners were among the lowest paid workforce in the airport with turnover rates exceeding 100% annually at some facilities. While these same screening companies were held to much higher standards internationally and had fielded a highly professional workforce abroad, that wasn’t the case in the United States. In the U.S., prior to 9/11  the screening workforce was largely comprised of unemployables, transient workers, and the poorly educated with limited English skills. I was a screener for a short period of time in the 1980s, and recall coming to work one night and seeing my co-workers, who had become bored, putting each other through the x-ray machine for fun. This wasn’t the brain trust we were dealing with here. I quit within the month.

In 2000, legislation was passed to bring up the standards of the screener workforce that included training requirements, but the law was not implemented before 9/11/01.

After 9/11, the screening workforce was federalized and standards of performance and training were implemented. Pay was also significantly increased, federal benefits added and former law enforcement, former members of the military and others who were better educated, were put into place to supervise the workforce. Initially, there were a lot of growing pains as many new TSA screeners were simply the same contract personnel that had been there a few weeks before. Over the course of the past decade TSA has had the opportunity to shake out a lot of individuals who can’t do the job.

While there are still significant problems with TSA screeners in terms of recent GAO reports about theft and allowing friends and family to bypass security, the number of incidents are really quite small compared to the size of the organization. TSA continues to take steps to solve the problems, but in some cases they are hindered by the employee protections that are now in place. I truly believe it is one of those cases where a few bad apples spoil the batch. The problems are unique to screeners either as a few years ago a couple of Air Marshals were arrested for smuggling drugs and weapons using their FAM credentials. In any organization, even law enforcement and security, there will be a bad element.

Another security process was put into place with the takeover of the screening checkpoints by TSA and that is the Travel Document Check (TDC). Prior to 9/11, nobody really checked your ID at the airport. You could use any valid airline ticket with just about any name on it and nobody would question you. Now, your identification is validated and cross checked with your airline ticket. While this is a thinner layer of aviation security it is still yet another obstacle for those who wish to attack aviation.

If anything, the TSA workforce was a bit overaggressive at first and continues to have problems in overstepping their bounds. The mission-creep continues as TSA behavior detection officers not only roam freely throughout the airport stopping and questioning passengers, visitors and employees, but they now show up at sporting events and concerts. Also, TSA’s efforts to make screening personnel feel better about their job such as changing their title from screener to Transportation Security Officer, has caused some confusion about responsibilities. A few years ago one screening supervisor, whose responsibility pretty much begins and ends at the checkpoint, said his title was “airport security manager.” Which was quite a surprise to the airport security manager who actually ran the airport. The TSO moniker also makes it easier to TSA to deploy personnel outside the screening checkpoint and I’ve heard through industry sources that this contributes to the mission-creep.

Also, as TSA continues to find hundreds of weapons every week of the screening checkpoints we know that they do not find everything. This is not considered a failure for TSA but the unfortunate noise of the system. With so many people and things being pushed through checkpoints on a daily basis there is a small percentage that is going to be missed. To close the gap even further would likely slow down the aviation system to unacceptable levels or make the cost of flying prohibitive.

There still are private contractors in place at about 16 airports in the United States through the TSA’s screening partnership program (aka “opt-out”). This pilot program has so far been very successful. The main difference between the private contractors now versus pre-9/11, is that they must adhere to the same operational policies and meet same standards as TSA personnel; their contracts are managed and paid for by the federal government, not by the bottom-line-watching airlines.

Overall, in observing the screener workforce (and having been one myself man years ago) that was in place prior to 9/11 that was devoid of training standards and very unreasonably thin performance standards, compared to the existing TSA workforce, this is an area that is certainly safer than before 9/11. 

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