Sunday, December 17, 2006
When Pete Celentano worked as an airport security screener in Newark, a suitcase with books inside was a huge hassle. The books can be hollowed out to hide plastic explosives, but they also regularly produced false alarms on the bomb-detection machines.
So during busy times, Celentano says some screeners chose an easy solution when a book tripped the alarm.
They ignored it.
Inspecting by hand took valuable minutes, and with supervisors and airline officials pressuring them to keep luggage and passengers moving, they often sidestepped the rules, Celentano said.
"The Continental (Airlines) people used to come around and say, 'What's the holdup?'" said Celentano, who quit in July after three years as a U.S. Transportation Security Administration screener in busy Terminal C. "They would go to our supervisors. When there's pressure on, you might just not scrutinize every bag."
More than five years after 9/11, and despite billions of dollars spent on improved security, the nation's aviation system remains vulnerable to terrorist attack, many security experts say. One major factor is the constant struggle to balance security and speed during peak travel periods at major airports, according to TSA screeners and supervisors.
While screeners say they are not explicitly told to skirt rules, they contend the demands to keep lines short and flights on schedule causes corners to be cut and security jeopardized.
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former TSA employees -- mostly from Newark Liberty -- revealed startling ways the desire for speed often trumps passenger security. It all stems from TSA's goal of limiting average peak wait times for passenger screening to under 20 minutes, most of those interviewed said.
Top TSA officials say they strike a proper balance between safety and wait times, with the emphasis on protecting passengers. Airline officials, meanwhile, say they do not pressure screeners and defer to TSA's rules.
"We won't compromise security to expedite the lines," said Earl Morris, TSA's director of field operations.
Morris said TSA does "monitor" lines and wants local agency officials to maintain a "reasonable wait time." But he did not offer a specific time, saying conditions are too different at the 452 commercial airports the agency oversees.
Screeners, however, list other ways security corners are cut in an effort to get passengers through checkpoints quickly, including:
Morris, the TSA official, said such acts are not condoned.
"That is totally inappropriate and outside our standard operating procedures," Morris said. "We do not feel the pressure from airlines to expedite our process because they are concerned about wait times."
FAILING GRADES AT NEWARKTSA personnel say time pressures intensify the agency's other troubles, such as screener shortages and inadequate training. Balancing the need for both speed and security may be impossible under TSA's current system, they say, pointing to disturbing lapses at the nation's airports in recent years.
Screeners around the country have posted consistently poor performances on undercover tests since TSA began them in 2002. Most recently, Newark Liberty screeners flunked 20 of 22 covert tests in October by TSA's national "Red Team" and also violated standard operating procedures, according to federal security officials familiar with the results.
Across the country, TSA supervisors are required to time the waits at all checkpoint lanes hourly and report them daily to headquarters in Virginia. When times exceed about 30 minutes, TSA supervisors are often dispatched to the checkpoints to reduce backlogs, screeners and supervisors say.
Mark Hatfield Jr., the TSA's federal security director at Newark Liberty, said dealing with time constraints is part of a screener's job at the busy hub.
On a typical day, Newark Liberty handles roughly 50,000 passengers. Those passengers check an average of 35,000 bags and typically carry on another item, according to TSA.
"It's a system that operates under pressure," Hatfield said, adding, "I've got 120 supervisors and 24 managers whose job is to make sure corners are not cut and (screening) officers follow the standard procedures."
Yet Clark Kent Ervin, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's former inspector general, recalled a 2004 report -- most of which was classified -- that touched on the pressure screeners felt "to keep the lines moving" at Houston's two major airports.
"Certainly, we found there were instances (of security shortcuts) taken by screeners because they felt time pressure," said Ervin, who now works for the Aspen Institute think tank. He said he could not discuss specifics.
According to Larry Tortorich, a former TSA training officer at New Orleans International Airport, screeners there would often take a female passenger's word that it was her underwire bra that set off a metal detector's alarm.
"It could be a wire bra or a pistol," Tortorich said.
"TSA is responding to what the airlines want, and that's accelerating the people through," said Tortorich, who was with TSA from 2002 to 2004.
AN UNREALISTIC GOALWait times have been monitored closely by the airlines since the TSA was created by Congress after 9/11. Then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta vowed TSA would deliver "world-class security" with "world-class customer service," setting the goal of keeping passenger waits to an average of 10 minutes or less. That goal has since been relaxed to 20 minutes or less.
It was a pledge that helped invite failure, say security experts.
"It would put the aviation business out of business if we allocated the amount of time for a human being -- even a well-trained human being -- to go through every piece of baggage," said Charles Slepian, an aviation security consultant. TSA should focus more on finding technological solutions, such as better machines to ferret out explosives, he said.
The uneasy balance between commerce and safety was in evidence in August, after British authorities foiled an alleged terrorist plot to blow up jetliners with liquid explosives. Within hours, TSA officials imposed an immediate ban on carry-on liquids and gels, temporarily lengthening lines as passengers grappled with the new rules.
A few days after the crackdown, wait times at a Terminal A checkpoint in Newark Liberty still exceeded 90 minutes due to time-consuming hand searches, according to TSA records.
American Airlines protested to TSA, which took the airline's side and ordered improvements, according to TSA officials; the hand searches were quickly curtailed to get the lines moving.
Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman, said there was "a miscommunication" because TSA supervisors at that Newark checkpoint were unaware "of adjusted security protocols." She added, "It was remedied quickly."
Ned Raynolds, an American Airlines spokesman, declined comment on the episode.
"We work with the TSA and abide by their procedures, which are intended to ensure the safety of the aircraft and their passengers," Raynolds said. "They don't tell us how to fly our planes. We don't tell them how to do security."
Continental Airlines, Newark Liberty's largest carrier, has received most of the criticism.
As late as May 2004, nearly 18 months after a mandate from Congress, Continental employees still were allowed by local TSA officials to put thousands of checked bags a day on planes without first screening them in bomb-detection machines, according to TSA officials and an internal agency e-mail obtained by The Star-Ledger at the time.
Even now, screeners say pressure still comes from TSA supervisors to move Continental's passengers faster in Terminal C.
"They tell us to rush, rush, rush -- get those people on the plane," said one current TSA screener in Terminal C.
That screener, like other current and some former employees, spoke only on condition of anonymity because the TSA prohibits disclosure of information it deems security sensitive.
Dave Messing, a Continental spokesman, said the airline had a "very good and cooperative" relationship with TSA at Newark Liberty, adding, "We never harass or pressure TSA officers to work faster.
"If screeners are feeling stressed, it's likely a reflection of the serious work they do, which has been likened to finding a needle in a haystack," Messing said.