Flight Risk

Under pressure from the airlines, federal managers are loosening airport security rules and compromising passenger safety.

Both men knew what they were witnessing could bring down a plane. Over the 2003 Thanksgiving holiday, Thomas Bittler and Ray Guagliardi, federal training coordinators at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, were helping examine outgoing luggage. Bittler, whose airport security expertise had earned him an award for excellence, recalls watching as screeners repeatedly failed to test bags for explosives as required by federal law. When alarms sounded, signaling suspicious bags, screeners did only cursory inspections. Guagliardi remembers telling Bittler, "I've seen so many violations, I don't know where to begin."

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The two men, employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), reported their concerns to their boss. But he didn't want to hear about it, telling them that they were responsible for assisting screeners, not supervising them. So they wrote a letter detailing their concerns to the agency's headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Two months later, they were out of work. A TSA spokes-woman says their positions were eliminated because of a staff reorganization. But both men say TSA officials told them that they should never have complained. According to Bittler, one supervisor said, "If you people would just learn to shut your mouths, you would still have your jobs."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. TSA was going to put safety first—ahead of passenger convenience and flight schedules. That's why Congress had federalized the airport-screening workforce and created the new agency in the weeks after the September 11 attacks. No longer would airport security be left to minimum-wage workers, employed by and answerable to the airlines. But after three years and billions of dollars, former and current screeners from nine airports around the country say security standards continue to be routinely violated to accommodate the airports' and airlines' business needs. According to the screeners, luggage is often loaded onto planes without being screened for explosives, and passenger checkpoints are regularly understaffed, increasing the risk of guns and knives being smuggled aboard. The bottom line, they say, is that TSA, under pressure from the airlines, has loosened its security practices to eliminate hassles for passengers and, in doing so, has seriously compromised safety.

Recent tests of airport security to determine whether screeners would discover concealed guns, knives, and simulated bombs had failure rates comparable to tests done in the 1980s and 1990s, says Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who was briefed in April on the classified results. The earlier tests showed that screeners missed roughly 20 percent of the prohibited items at checkpoints and that screeners using X-ray machines to examine luggage missed 2 of every 3 bags carrying simulated explosives. "Anyone who has seen the classified results…and does not call for reform in the program, I believe, is derelict in their responsibility," says Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee. TSA officials insist other classified test results show that the agency's screeners are performing well.

Since 9/11, the government has spent about $11 billion on TSA—nearly all of it for aviation security—hiring thousands of new screeners and buying hundreds of new explosive-detection machines. Federal law now requires that every checked bag be screened for explosives before it is loaded onto a plane and that every passenger pass through a gate maintained by federally trained screeners.

Yet by February 2002, as TSA screeners were being deployed, the airlines and airports were already lobbying to reduce the "hassle factor," the obstacles travelers face on the way to their planes. In May 2002, Donald J. Carty, then American Airlines chairman and CEO, denounced the new federal system as "nuts," while Leo F. Mullin, Delta's CEO at the time, complained that the hassles had cost airlines $2.5 billion. John Magaw, TSA's first director, quit in July 2002, just six months into the job, after clashing with airline and airport offi-cials. "They wanted to be able to behind-the-scenes dictate," he says. "[Transportation] Secretary [Norman] Mineta caved in to those requests, and I wasn't going to." (Mineta's spokesman declined to comment.)

Magaw's replacement, Admiral James Loy, emphasized greater cooperation with airports and airlines and better customer service. He discontinued such measures as check-in interviews with travelers and passenger searches at the boarding gate. Screeners say that under Loy, the minimum number of screeners needed to work on a passenger-screening lane dropped from seven to four.

Many airport and airline managers remain dissatisfied with the federal screening system. They say that TSA doesn't have enough screeners, pointing to a congressional cap that limits TSA to 45,000 screeners, about 15,000 fewer than the agency originally had requested. The Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, acknowledges safety problems at 25 airports, and Doug Wills, a spokesman for the group, says that TSA, not the airlines, bears the responsibility for these security deficits. "My understanding is that TSA can tell the airline officials to take a hike," he says. As of March, at least 100 airport managers had said that they want to replace federal screeners with private ones later this year, as permitted by Congress. "It would be the dumbest thing we've ever done," says Billie Vincent, former security director for the Federal Aviation Administration. "The airports are interested in the facilitation of the movement of people, not security."

Indeed, screeners say that the airlines are constantly pressing them to go faster and make lines shorter. Les Marzke, a lead TSA screener at Orlando International Airport, notes that airline officials often walk over to checkpoints to demand that TSA open new screening lanes, and TSA managers comply—even when they lack adequate staffing for each lane. "Whatever the airlines want, they are going to get," he says. "They would come down and direct TSA how to run the checkpoints." In Springfield, Missouri, the airlines have convinced TSA to open a separate checkpoint for charter flights, one that is often staffed with three screeners—one less than regulations require. In April, according to a screener there, passengers with flagged boarding passes, which signal the need for a special inspection, made it past the checkpoints to the gate without the required searches. And screeners at Houston's two big airports—Hobby and Bush Intercontinental—complained of the same understaffing of checkpoints, triggering one of several investigations of TSA by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.

Like the coordinators in Buffalo, screeners at other airports warn that not every piece that goes into a plane's luggage compartment is being checked. Houston screeners told congressional investigators that TSA managers had ordered them to ignore alarms for possible explosives in bags. A screener at New York's LaGuardia Airport says that on busy days his co-workers have been ordered to pile bags together and just swipe the outside of each piece with a handheld explosive detector, a violation of a rule requiring more extensive checks. Janice Edwards, a former screener at Tampa International, adds that luggage that set off the alarm on one pass through the X-ray machine sometimes won't alarm on a second pass. Yet when she would inspect a suspicious-looking bag that had not set off the alarm, she says, she was disciplined. "One of our screening managers told us, 'If it doesn't alert on the [machine], let it go. If the plane blows up, we did our job.'"

Guagliardi and Bittler, however, have a different idea of what it means to do the job. They have filed for federal whistleblower protection status, making them 2 of 45 former TSA employees who have claimed wrongful termination to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Both say they want to honor the oath they took when starting at TSA—that safety would be their top priority. Guagliardi left his teaching career to do airport security because he was too old at 38 to enlist in the military. "I thought it was my generation's time to step up," he says. Every day at the airport, he kept a pin in his pocket commemorating the 9/11 hijacked planes. Bittler had been a security expert in the Air Force Reserve before he moved his family from Ohio to New York so he could work at the Buffalo airport. "The whole purpose behind the 9/11 Commission is to make sure that it never happens again," he says, exasperation straining his voice. "It's going to happen again. Nobody is doing anything."