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"Some say screening U.S. airport workers means long lines"


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Some say screening airport workers means long lines
A Delta Airlines truck sits at the terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Closer scrutiny of airport workers could be on the way.
A Delta Airlines truck sits at the terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Closer scrutiny of airport workers could be on the way.

It also could become law.

"I believe it's going to be mandated," Charlotte Bryan, an assistant administrator at the Transportation Security Administration, told an aviation-security conference last week.

A bill to require employee screening gained bipartisan support in the House this year as lawmakers expressed concern at seeing airport workers arrested on immigration, theft and drug charges. "We know airport employees have carried out unlawful activities," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who sponsored the bill.

The TSA screens airport employees who have not passed a background check — they must go through passenger checkpoints if they work in secure areas of an airport. But the vast majority of airport workers — about 900,000 — face no screening to get to their jobs because they've passed background checks, Congress' Government Accountability Office said.

If Lowey's measure becomes law, airport workers will probably be screened at employee-only checkpoints rather than at traditional checkpoints with other airline passengers, said Charles Chambers, head of security for the Airports Council International.

Even with their own checkpoints, airport workers could be forced to wait hours in line to get cleared to go to work, said Tim Anderson, deputy executive operations director at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. And checking them for weapons would be difficult. "How do you stop a carpenter from coming onto the airfield with his screwdriver if he needs his screwdriver to do his job?" Anderson said.

Chambers said mandatory screening is unnecessary because airport workers already undergo background checks and face random screening once they're in secured areas. "The system we have in place works pretty well," Chambers said. "People don't know when they'll be screened."

Only Miami International Airport screens employees when they come to work, Chambers said.

That started in the mid-1990s after Miami airport workers were arrested in a drug sting, airport spokeswoman Lauren Stover said. The 33,000 employees at the airport go through one of four basement-level checkpoints that are run by airport security officials with minimal lines, Stover said.

Miami's system cost the airport "millions" to set up, Stover said. "There's a very valid concern about an inside threat," she added.

Lowey's bill authorizes the government to pay for screening workers but doesn't specify an amount.

The House Homeland Security Committee in July approved a modified version of Lowey's bill that delays when airports must start screening employees until after a pilot program is run at five airports to test a new system. Both Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the outgoing committee chairman, and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who is to replace him when Democrats take over Congress next month, support screening airport workers, their offices said.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, senior Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees the TSA, said screening airport workers "should be a big priority."

The TSA recently started randomly screening airport workers once they get to work, and is requiring background checks for airport employees who haven't gotten them.

"We are watching those people who access the secure and sterile areas of our airports," said Earl Morris, TSA general manager for field operations.

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