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Tuesday, July 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:37 P.M.
Air safety hinges on change of course for ailing agency
Copyright 2004, The Seattle Times Company
The agency has hired more screeners at some airports and removed security directors at others.
But despite spot fixes, airport security around the country remains a system in crisis.
And before the year is over, TSA faces a referendum on its future. Beginning Nov. 19 the third anniversary of TSA's creation airport officials will be permitted to choose to stay in the federal system or opt out. Airports that opt out will be allowed to hire private security companies or handle screening themselves either way, with TSA oversight.
Lawmakers, aviation experts and others offer prescriptions to fix the ailing agency. Their proposals include giving TSA security directors at individual airports more authority to deal nimbly with local problems; updating equipment and technology; providing a safer and more supportive workplace; and focusing on suspicious passengers instead of treating everyone as a potential terrorist.
Whatever the solution, scores of screeners across the country told The Seattle Times they're desperate for changes.
What's the priority?
TSA officials say they're working on solutions and that their problems haven't compromised the nation's security. For example, TSA has already replaced walk-through metal detectors at airports across the country.
But some critics believe that in order to placate impatient travelers and airlines, TSA has moved away from its original mandate to place security above all else.
"It's like the old FAA mandate promote aviation and keep an eye on them," aviation expert Robert Monetti said of the Federal Aviation Administration. Monetti became an air-safety expert after his son was killed when terrorists bombed a jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
Monetti said the FAA for years operated with a dual mission to promote civil aviation while making sure airlines operated safely. Only after a series of deadly crashes in the 1990s did the agency make safety its top priority.
Now TSA, which oversees 450 airports nationwide, faces similar pressures.
Some politicians, frustrated with TSA's performance, favor private screeners. But security experts question that approach.
Experts also say the airports' opt-out choice misses the point: The question isn't who should handle security, so much as how.
Split views in Congress
Some U.S. House members have taken the lead on aviation-security issues not only because of key committee assignments or problems in their districts but because they fly a lot.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he proposed the use of federal screeners even before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He still embraces that approach but worries TSA doesn't have enough resources.
When he enters his congressional office building, DeFazio said, he sees more sophisticated X-ray equipment than TSA uses. And at the airport, he sees long lines that reflect too few screeners and a lack of standards for wait times.
DeFazio blames Congress for limiting TSA to 45,000 employees, down from a peak of 55,600: "We have an arbitrary cap on the number of screeners totally pulled out of somewhere."
And he blames TSA's first administrator, John Magaw, for establishing a rigid bureaucracy that stripped local security directors of power and placed it all in Washington.
But anyone who favors a return to private screeners would have to be "nuts," DeFazio said. Under that system, he said, the airlines hired security firms based on the lowest bids and wound up with poorly trained screeners paid only minimum wage.
"It's either incompetence or a plot it's hard to tell."
Still, DeFazio said, "Today, security is infinitely better than it was under the old system."
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., isn't so sure. The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation has blistered TSA, calling it "a multibillion-dollar mirage" and a "Soviet-style" centralized bureaucracy.
In an interview, Mica said turning airport security over to private companies would give managers more independence and allow for innovative approaches to security and service. Of the federal screeners, Mica said: "They look nice. They have a patch and a uniform, but my question is: How well do they detect threats?"
Not very well, he thinks. He points to government inspectors' covert tests of how well screeners detect weapons on passengers and luggage. "The results are classified, but I can tell you they are disastrous," Mica said.
Mica said he can't understand why so many screeners end up injured because they have to hoist heavy bags. Why can't baggage handlers do that? he asked.
"I wouldn't care if a grandmother took a bazooka on board, if she didn't intend to use it," he said.
To help determine which passengers are suspicious, Mica said, TSA should create a more sophisticated passenger "watch list" that draws background information from more law-enforcement agencies.
Mica said he expects many airports "80 to 100 initially and then maybe more" will opt out of the TSA this year, in effect firing the federal screeners.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, has logged about 1.4 million miles flying between his home and Washington, D.C., the past 14 years. Along the way, he has become something of an accidental shop steward for screeners.
Last year, McDermott passed through airport security in Seattle, shoes in hand, when a screener discreetly asked if he could come to McDermott's office sometime.
When they met, the screener told McDermott that TSA managers in Seattle promoted and punished unfairly and that many other screeners felt the same. Pushed for proof, the screener provided documents, McDermott said. The congressman later met privately with other screeners.
McDermott asked TSA to investigate the allegations. Ultimately, the agency's top managers in Seattle were removed.
In some respects, the TSA's challenges are not new. Airline security in the United States has been shaped by spasmodic responses to threats and tragedy but with little, if any, significant improvement to show for those efforts.
Legislation or emergency regulations followed hijackings in the early 1970s; the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland; the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800; and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But contract screeners continued to perform miserably on security tests, allowing guns, bombs and other weapons through security checkpoints.
Such lapses still occur with the TSA, which from the outset received only lukewarm support from many members of Congress and the Bush administration. Indeed, concerns about a bloated new bureaucracy led Congress to create the opt-out program.
And, to help assess TSA's performance, Congress at Mica's urging created a pilot project: Five airports of varying size were allowed to operate with private contractors. TSA and Congress were then supposed to be able to compare the systems.
The study found one useful comparison: Private contractors were allowed to hire baggage handlers so screeners could concentrate on examining bags rather than moving them.
Deciding at Sea-Tac
Along with airport operators throughout the county, the Port of Seattle is beginning to wrestle with whether to opt out of the federal system.
Jeff Fitch, the airport-security director for the Port of Seattle, is already studying which way Seattle-Tacoma International Airport should go. While the TSA will pay the port for a private work force, it's unclear whether the port would get money for more screeners if air travel increases, Fitch said. He added that the port also wants to carefully balance security needs with customer service.
But that isn't so simple, said Tony Zotto, former federal security director at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in the nation's capital.
Zotto said because TSA security directors aren't sworn law-enforcement officers, they can be excluded from police and intelligence briefings. TSA headquarters would pass along intelligence, he recalled, "but it was a day late and dollar short."
TSA also needs to invest more in research, finding ways to develop better machines to scan luggage for bombs, said Aaron Gellman, professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
TSA's daunting challenge was made clear when retired Navy Adm. David Stone appeared last month before a Senate committee reviewing his nomination to be TSA's new administrator.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., described the challenge as "truly awesome." Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said TSA will need "some magic" to stretch its budget.
Committee members asked Stone, currently the agency's acting administrator, to secure not only airports, but ports and rail, too. They also wanted his agency to work more effectively with Congress and anticipate threats, not simply react to them.
Furthermore, they asked the TSA to establish priorities and adopt performance standards, which government auditors have repeatedly urged.
Stone, a former federal security director at Los Angeles International Airport, mapped out his plans for the agency.
He said he wants to strip out management layers that TSA needed in the beginning, have more direct contact with airport security directors and give them more authority. Directors haven't been able to hire or fire their own staff. They had to apply for approval from headquarters for basic supplies, such as cellphone batteries.
Stone said he also wants to create a model workplace.
Some patches made
It's clear TSA can repair some problems.
In Newark, the agency sent more screeners when the Newark Star-Ledger wrote that the airport was not screening all bags as required by law.
When Nevada's congressional delegation threatened to delay the Senate confirmation of Stone, TSA quickly reallocated more screeners to the Las Vegas airport to cut down on historically long lines.
In Seattle, The Times wrote about a host of problems. Screeners followed with a petition outlining similar complaints about poor management. And Rep. McDermott stepped in.
The agency ultimately promised the equivalent of 50 additional full-time baggage screeners to help with summer travel; it pledged to provide better training space and to move screeners from cramped work spaces.
And, most dramatically, it removed four top managers and brought in a new federal security director, John C. "Jack" Kelley Jr., who has pledged open communication with workers and has walked the checkpoints to hear screeners' concerns.
Yet TSA officials in Washington, D.C., had been aware of at least some of the issues facing the airport for months. Former director Bob Blunk had repeatedly asked for help with staffing, personnel issues and training, according to internal documents and people familiar with the requests. His managers had appealed to headquarters in some instances to protect the jobs of some screeners.
TSA's responses in Newark, Las Vegas and Seattle helped patch weak spots. But they fall short of addressing widespread failures that have left America's airports vulnerable to the next wave of determined terrorists.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or email@example.com
Cheryl Phillips: 206-464-2411 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or email@example.com
Seattle Times staff reporters Christine Willmsen and Alyson Beery and researchers Miyoko Wolf and Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
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