U.S.: Weapons still elude airport security monitors

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Headline: Weapons still elude airport security monitors

Source: USA TODAY, 2 October 2001

URL: http://www.usatoday.com/hphoto.htm In Miami, a federal investigator sneaked three knives past airport screeners. In Fort Lauderdale, undercover sheriff's deputies took a pocketknife and a box cutter through airport metal detectors and X-ray machines. In Philadelphia, a man smuggled four box cutters and two paint scrapers past airport security to prove to his wife that flying wasn't safe.

The security breaches took place in the days following the Sept. 11 hijackings of four flights by terrorists armed with box cutters and knives. Before the hijackings, airport screeners hadn't been ordered to confiscate small cutting tools. But since airports reopened two days after the attacks and knives were banned, the tightest security since the Persian Gulf War still hasn't been tight enough to spot the potential weapons.

So what will it take to keep weapons off planes? What sort of security should travelers expect? And, ultimately, would the skies become safer if screeners were made government workers?

That's what Congress will begin to debate this week. At issue is the training and performance of about 30,000 airport screeners, the workers who serve as the last line of defense at the 420 commercial airports nationwide.

Their job is a difficult, monotonous one. Generally, the pay is just a bit more than minimum wage. Few screeners receive benefits. They sit hour after hour looking at X-ray images, with weeks passing before they spot the outline of what could be a gun, a bomb or a knife. And when they stop to question what they see, long lines of unhappy travelers begin grumbling about missing their flights.

Last week, President Bush suggested that closer federal regulation of current screeners, now employed by the airlines, would be enough to improve their performance. Security directives issued last week by the Federal Aviation Administration ordered screeners to conduct more aggressive searches. Laptops need to be removed from their cases and both computer and case subject to X-rays. The operator "must stop the belt to view each image on the monitor to ensure that no prohibited items are present."

And hand-held metal detectors sometimes called wands are to be used continually, often "in conjunction with a pat-down search." The National Guard also has been deployed to provide a presence at checkpoints.

In the coming months, transportation officials may go even further by creating a non-profit corporation that would train and supervise screeners. In reports to the Secretary of Transportation, two task forces say a "federal security agency" should "have prime responsibility for airport security, including the hiring, training and supervising of all functions related to airport passenger and baggage screening."

Like Bush, however, they say the screeners themselves could be contracted from private firms. The screeners would be offered better wages and benefits than the approximately $6-$7 an hour many receive today, but they would face stricter standards designed to improve their performance. "It would elevate security screening as we know it," says Norman Mineta, secretary of Transportation. "What we have today is without a doubt a broken system."

But a who's who of others concerned with aviation safety including the Air Line Pilots Association, airlines, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, some congressional leaders and the screeners themselves questions whether the administration's plan goes far enough.

Some call Bush's proposal patches on a frayed system. "It's more of the half-assed measures that got us into the Sept. 11 hijackings and will produce the same half-assed results," says Billie Vincent, former FAA security director. Vincent and others say making all screeners government employees may be the only way to ensure qualified workers and reverse a rate of turnover that compares with that of McDonald's.

All agree that a more uniform approach to airport screening consistent from airport to airport is an absolute must. But whatever happens, experts say, travelers need to understand that screening baggage is a difficult task that relies less on the quality of machines than it does on the skills of the people who work them.

Becoming a screener

At the Daytona Beach International Airport in Florida, recently retired screener Mary Hoover used to supervise a cadre of elderly workers who, she says, often seemed more inclined to socialize than screen. "You have no idea how bad it is," says Hoover, no kid herself at age 72. She retired Sept. 13 after 6 1/2 years on the job. What she saw during that time and on the day the airport reopened frightened her, she says.

"We have people there I think one is 75 and he's got glaucoma. And he's had a couple of cataracts removed," she says. "Now, you tell me how he can see what's on that screen. It's terrible."

Supervisors at the Daytona airport say they cannot talk to the media about screening there, although one says she oversees "a wonderful crew."

But that's not what Hoover remembers. At least three screeners, she says, were hard of hearing and didn't recognize when the metal detector sounded. "They're standing next to the gate, the gate goes off and I'd have to say, 'Hey, the gate rang! The gate rang!' Otherwise, they wouldn't notice."

Stories such as Hoover's should come as no surprise to travelers, many of whom complain of disinterested screeners, even after the hijackings. Although airlines are responsible for security, screeners are hired, trained and supervised by private security firms contracted by the airlines. A screener needs just a high school diploma or its equivalent and the ability to speak and understand enough English to do the job.

Current FAA regulations which were going to be strengthened this year also mandate criminal background checks and "the physical ability and visual acuity to perform their job functions."

Sometimes, unqualified applicants can be eliminated during the mandated 12 hours of classroom and 40 hours of on-the-job training. In addition, the security firms that do the hiring say a written test can weed out candidates. But the tests, Hoover recalls, are not particularly difficult. "The questions are so simple, like... 'What do you do if you see a gun? Stop it in the machine or let it go through?' " says Hoover, who was last tested 3 months ago.

ITS and Argenbright Security, two of the nation's largest security firms, say their staffs completely turn over each year. In some airports, the rate is even worse. Such massive turnover compounds the training problems and, critics suggest, forces the firms to keep weak screeners around.

It might also encourage firms to cut corners. Argenbright, for instance, was fined $1.2 million for assigning improperly trained employees to run security checkpoints, falsifying prospective employees' security tests and failing to conduct background checks. In fact, the U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania argued that 1,300 Argenbright workers at the Philadelphia International Airport weren't qualified.

Spotting the weapon

Even the most qualified screeners find that working the security checkpoint well is no easy task. In 1996, a study approved by the National Research Council outlined the problems. "Poor operator performance is a principal weakness of existing passenger screening systems and a potential weakness of future systems," it reads. "Currently, personnel at screening checkpoints are required to perform tasks for which human beings are not well-suited." Screeners must spot "faint indications" of weapons, the report says. "These objects may take an almost infinite number of shapes and orientations in a wide variety of baggage types."

To help, X-ray machines at many airports allow screeners to enlarge images and change the color of the screen, which can help them contrast objects. Some are designed to show "organic" objects everything from bomb materials to a piece of fruit in color to draw a screener's attention. "There is even a system where the X-ray on its own can superimpose an image of a gun or a bomb on the bag going through to keep the operator alert," says Reynold Hoover, Mary Hoover's son and a counterterrorism expert who conducts security seminars.

Screeners are basically trained to catch various configurations of mock guns and bombs in tests created by the FAA. The mock bombs are presented in 44 different configurations, says a current FAA special agent who asked not to be identified. The problem, the agent says, is that screeners are generally not adept at spotting bombs that aren't presented in those configurations.

For example, pieces of a disassembled handgun or bomb might be hidden in separate carry-ons and therefore might not draw attention. "No terrorist in his right mind would put all the bomb components together and put them through a screening checkpoint," the agent says.

Knives might present an even bigger challenge, in part because they are small and can be concealed relatively easily. A metal knife could be folded and put in a carry-on to test the screener's ability to spot an image. But a ceramic knife with little or no metal might successfully be carried through the metal detector without any warning. Some experts say nothing short of pat-downs of all travelers and searches of all carry-ons can stop all knives.

Even then, so much depends upon the aggressiveness of the screeners. Former FAA special agent Steve Elson recounts his April visit to Boston's Logan International Airport, where hijackers boarded two flights Sept. 11. With a TV reporter, he sought to test whether screening there was effective.

He says screeners failed to properly check lead-lined film bags that contained items that could not be detected by the X-ray machines. In an effort to dissuade screeners from checking the bags, he secured them with plastic ties that were difficult to open. The screener, he says, eventually took the passenger's word that they contained film.

The debate

Many in Congress say the only way to ensure top-notch screeners is to make them federal employees. A federalized workforce, they contend, would result in a uniform level of security that can't be offered by the firms that provide screeners. "We wouldn't think about contracting out for an army to protect us against a foreign invasion," Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said. "We should not think about contracting out a screening force to protect us against an act of war."

Oberstar says screeners should be subject to the same employment standards as law enforcement officers hired by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service, the Coast Guard and other federal agencies. A $2.50 each-way airline ticket surcharge, he says, would cover the cost. "(It's) about the price of a Starbucks' cappuccino grande at the airport," Oberstar says.

The alternative, spelled out by Bush last week and in the task force reports to Mineta, is less radical. It would have the government establishing standards for screeners and supervising passenger and baggage security at every airport. In addition, government workers will perform "intensive background checks" on all screeners, train and test screeners and security personnel, and purchase and maintain all equipment.

"The president believes you can achieve the same results without putting all these thousands of people on the federal payroll," Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer says.

Others agree. "The answer is to create a new entity with the authority to enforce new employee and operations standards, pay competitive salaries and benefits, retain or dismiss workers based on performance, and respond quickly to changes in technology," says Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of a key House aviation subcommittee.

Other aviation experts say more drastic steps are necessary. Vincent, the FAA security director from 1982 to 1986, says a well-paid screening force must be under the direction of the FBI. Neither the airlines nor FAA should be involved, he says. Vincent thinks screeners should be armed. At a training academy to be established, he says, they should be trained for at least 16 weeks in the use of firearms, aviation security procedures and the operation of X-ray, metal and bomb detection devices.

Consumer activist Paul Hudson and the Association of Flight Attendants suggest another step that could be taken quickly: Limit the number of carry-ons. That way, they say, screeners could pay closer attention to each bag. Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, says having the National Guard at checkpoints might reassure passengers. "But it doesn't appear that it will improve screening for weapons and other dangerous materials," he says.

"We're more than two weeks now since the hijackings and the reality is, there is no real security," Hudson says. Without improving screening and doing it quickly he says the only defense to future hijackers is the last, failed defense: "the same underpaid, undertrained screeners."

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), October 02, 2001

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