Flight Risk

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

Photo: <a href="http://www.rheaanna.com" target="new">Rhea Anna</a>


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.”

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.”