A Series of Unexpected Troubles

The TSA faces a challenge to improve its screening processes. What can be done?


If bad publicity could be converted to dollars, the Transportation Security Administration would be so flush with cash it could forego congressional budget requests for years. Congress and the media have focused their ire on the ineptitude and alleged criminality of some airport screeners, to the exclusion of equally salient, yet less publicized factors. An accurate assessment of the current state of airport security requires an examination of the variety of issues that have contributed to its wounds.

In fairness to the TSA, it is important to remember that the agency was created in just 11 weeks following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Billie Vincent, an aviation consultant and former director of the FAA Office of Civil Aviation Security, noted that given the haste in which the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) was drafted, passed and signed into law by President Bush, we should have expected problems to develop.

Management Turnover
Senior management turnover has been troublesome for the TSA. In May, President Bush nominated Edmund "Kip" Hawley to be the agency's new chief, which will make him the fourth new TSA director in as many years. What is interesting about the first three appointees-John McGaw, Admiral James Loy, and Admiral David Stone-is that the words "commercial aviation security" did not figure prominently in their professional backgrounds. Hawley, on the other hand, has been a member of the FAA Air Traffic Services committee.

Richard L. Duncan, CPP, aviation security director at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said these senior management shifts have had an impact on the overall interpretation of security policies and procedures at his airport.

"In the early phases of the TSA, they were heavily pushing a law enforcement type of agency," said Duncan. "Today they have started focusing on the things they do best, which is passenger and baggage screening activities."

These frequent changes in management and their accompanying policy shifts sometimes present unexpected challenges to the rank-and-file screening personnel. For instance, during Admiral Loy's tenure, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta pushed the TSA to get airline passengers through screening points in 10 minutes or less. Billie Vincent describes this mentality as "facilitation, not security."

"That has happened throughout the history of aviation security," asserted Vincent. "The moment the FAA used to try to do something meaningful, the airlines would say, 'Well, that will affect our bottom line,' or 'That will affect our customers' movement' and so on. And before they ever reached a good security measure, they were talking about how to compromise the process and get the people through quicker."

More-No, Fewer Screeners
Adding to the TSA's security woes was the initial rapid expansion and subsequent contraction of its screening program. Vincent said that in its short history, the agency has "located, tested, hired, trained and indoctrinated over 60,000 persons in less than one year. It has also lost some 10,000-plus employees after having ramped up to an initial employment level beyond its congressionally authorized strength." The remaining 45,000 screeners now appear to be stretched too thin, and some federal security directors at busier airports are requesting additional personnel.

"Congress limited the TSA to 45,000 screeners in 2001, and that cap has not changed," said Duncan. "We're now into 2005, and if you look at Atlanta, our traffic has increased tremendously. In 2004 we did 83.4 million passengers, but there has been no growth in the TSA workforce at airports. In fact, TSA is threatening to cut screeners based on Congressional limitations."

This led to charges from individual screeners that the mandated three-hour-per-week training they were supposed to receive was more like a few minutes. Their concerns were validated in a report issued by the General Accountability Office in May. It states that almost half of the local TSA managers reported that there was not sufficient time for screeners to receive recurrent training within regular work hours because of understaffing.

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