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Wednesday, July 14, 2004 - Page updated at 11:16 A.M.
Live Q & A: Airport Insecurity
C.P. and S.M.: TSA did hire 50 additional screeners for the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. But many of its potential applicants are already on an approved list. One of the criticisms of TSA is that hiring is handled by a contractor and that federal security directors don't have enough local control. The agency is beginning a pilot program to allow directors to handle hiring in their own airports. But until TSA changes its overall hiring policy, the best suggestion is to continue to monitor TSA's Web site at www.tsa.gov for openings.
When will Americans be ready to accept the fact of life that the danger isn't the potential weapon, it is the intent of the person possessing it? It is time to recognize that stopping bad people is a lot more efficient (and cost effective) than trying to confiscate every air passenger's nail file or crescent wrench. Private, Arizona
C.P. and S.M.: While security experts say that screening for dangerous items has to be done, many agree that more emphasis must be placed on identifying potential terrorists through better "watch lists." They suggest that TSA collect more information from more law enforcement and intelligence agencies, so the agency is in a better position to deal with real threats. But privacy advocates have questioned this approach, saying it is invasion of privacy and could be misused.
Many airports have been receiving a "bonus" to distribute to employees. Myself and a few others did not receive any bonus. When questions are asked to the higher-ups, they panic and avoid the issue. (Yet) the few who did not receive a bonus are always to work on time, don't call in and are very hard and dependable workers. So the main question is: Why did some receive and some did not? N/A, Houston, TX
C.P. and S.M.: According to interviews with screeners and supervisors, the bonuses have been handled very differently from airport to airport. At some, the bonuses are divided equally among the staff. At others, a committee decides how much money should go to which employees. At still other airports, screeners and supervisors complain that favored employees receive very large bonuses while others receive little or nothing.
Screening passengers and checked baggage is only one facet of aviation safety. No focus or funding is being placed on securing the other ways aviation security could be compromised at U.S. airports (ie. cargo). With billions already being spent through the TSA on front-door type security, will there ever be resources dedicated towards securing the back doors of America's airports? Private, Colorado
C.P. and S.M.: Congress is continuing to grapple with screening cargo. Right now, it's difficult both financially and because of technological limitations. Some of the scanning machines can't scan the large containers shipped via cargo. But last week, TSA announced it would begin screening employees who work at the airport. Previously, the agency had been criticized for not doing so. In one media report, a ramp worker was even caught with a duffel bag of ammunition and a gun at work. He reportedly kept it with him for safety reasons.
Does the opt-out program really improve an airport's situation? The TSA still rules and the screening is back in the hands of a private company, which was the reason for TSA's creation in the first place. Jill, Denver, CO
C.P. and S.M.: Congress tried to address that question by creating a pilot program at five airport that are allowed to use private screeners, with TSA supervision. But the program contains too many limitations to allow innovations. That led the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to conclude that no meaningful comparisons could be made. The GAO did find TSA and private screeners were performing at roughly the same level, with both experiencing problems in detecting dangerous items. Security experts have expressed concerns about private screeners, saying profits could trump safety. But some in Congress argue that private firms are more flexible, improving the chances of better security and service.
What's the story behind the lead X-ray image of the gun in the suitcase that accompanied the first installment of your series? Moderator, seattletimes.com
C.P. and S.M.: The image of the gun in the suitcase came from a scanning machine used to detect explosives and weapons in checked luggage. The gun did not trigger an alarm at all. The image only appeared on the display monitor of the machine because the suitcase was too large to be scanned completely. That's when the screener discovered the gun. Screeners also provided other images that signaled problems with shoes but not guns in the same luggage. Guns are allowed in checked baggage, but only if they are unloaded, locked in a gun case and declared by the passenger.
Other than some recent discharges at Sea-Tac Airport, do you see sufficient accountability within federal aviation security? Brian Sullivan, Plymouth, MA
C.P. and S.M.: Based on our reporting, we see gaps in accountability. While TSA has addressed spot problems, it has not addressed widespread failures that undermine security across the country. It is also apparent that TSA's employees do not believe that top agency officials have adequately dealt with issues such as injuries, favoritism and pay problems.
After billions of dollars being spent on aviation security, is the taxpayer getting the level of security we deserve? Brian Sullivan, Plymouth, MA
C.P. and S.M.: Based on our interviews with more 120 screeners and supervisors, it is clear that taxpayers are not getting the type of service that was expected when TSA was created. That includes security as well as customer service. Even members of Congress share this view.
Why is it that a senior citizen (approx. 90 years old) carrying a key-chain crescent wrench with no sharp edges must dispose of the sentimental gift? Lauren James, New York, N.Y.
C.P. and S.M.: Actually, passengers found with items not allowed on planes are supposed to be able to either mail the item to themselves, or, if possible, put it in their checked luggage. Screeners we interviewed also said there is a lot of confusion over what is allowed.
On July 9, I flew from Minneapolis to Sea-Tac Airport on Northwest. As we exited the shuttle train from the south satellite, we were detained by a TSA representative, and the shuttle train was held in the station. Apparently there had been a security breach somewhere. So we waited in a plywood encased hallway in the shuttle station, with no information other than that a TSA agent wasn't letting us go further. ... We could see that ... at the other end of the station are the stairs going up to the new A terminal, and they weren't blocked. So several of us went up and ... walked straight out to baggage claim. ... Why were they held up there when other exits were wide open? What is the security issue of going to baggage claim? John Lewis, Seattle
C.P. and S.M.: Without knowing the underlying reasons for TSA's actions, it isn't possible to give you an informed answer. But in general, it is clear that security breaches do lead to confusing and frustrating delays in which passengers are herded from one area to another with little explanation. TSA's general goal is to ensure that the secure - or sterile - areas of airports are cleared when a breach occurs to allow re-screening of passengers. In our reporting, we found that TSA supervisors often made uninformed decisions as well, adding to the confusion.
Cheryl, Steve: You've done an incredible job here, from a former lead screener at LAX. My ex-federal security director and now the head of TSA, David Stone, has seemed to skate through all this fairly unscathed. Do you see him coming under fire or more intense scrutiny soon as more and more proof piles up that he has turned a blind eye to these problems since day one? Do you see any Congressional investigations into the TSA coming, or are they all just ducking their heads into the sand? Thanks again for the super reporting. Brenda M. Negri, San Pedro, CA
C.P. and S.M.: We requested an interview with Mr. Stone but were told he was not granting any interviews while awaiting Senate confirmation for the position of TSA administrator. We did attend a Senate hearing on his confirmation and obtained a copy of questions and answers he provided the committee. We also extensively interviewed a TSA spokesman for the agency's official response to our findings. There certainly are many members of Congress who are questioning the agency and its actions on a regular basis. However, it's unclear whether they would launch an investigation.
Very nice and informative article. One thing though. Could you imagine going to the doctor and having the doctor use the same pair of exam gloves on you that had been used for the previous 100 or so exams? .... Take this one step further. In the baggage screening process, how many bags get "hand inspected" before yours? (How often does) someone rummage through your clothes with "used gloves"? Private, Seattle
C.P. and S.M.: The gloves screeners use while they search bags have been an issue at some airports. In some cases, screeners have reported a shortage of gloves; as a result, they wear them for long periods. In other cases, they report having no gloves at all. If you have any health concerns, you might want to contact the TSA.
I'm curious about some of the reporting strategies behind the series. How did you approach screeners and managers at airports? Did you immediately offer to quote them anonymously, or only after they insisted they would not talk on the record? How did they usually react to you when you told them what your story was about and that you wanted to use them as a source? Chris Collins, Burlington, NC
C.P. and S.M.: We obtained the names of screeners from publicly available lists of TSA employees. We then used phone directories and databases to get phone numbers. After reaching a screener, we described the story we were working on and the types of questions we had. Before going further, we explained that we preferred to quote them by name, but that we also understood the job risks of doing so and gave them an option of not being quoted by name. Some hung up on us; some said they were too afraid to talk; others willingly agreed to be interviewed. Most who agreed to talk requested anonymity. We urged those who no longer worked for TSA to allow us to use their names.
During the course of your investigation, was it possible to determine which airports had the greatest amount of problems regarding TSA? If so, could you identify the types of problems and the airports? Tony Shimmin, Long Beach, CA
C.P. and S.M.: We were unable to quantify the problems by airport. But after writing about problems at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, we were contacted by screeners at airports across the country. That gave us an indication of which airports might have problems. And the issues raised by screeners were similar at all of the airports where we interviewed employees. We also chose to randomly interview screeners at selected major airports in different geographic areas of the country. In general, we found problems with security breaches, inconsistent use of the standard operating procedures and management difficulties.
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