The Unseen Protectors of Air Travel

In airport basements, checked baggage screeners put intelligence into a partially automated process


Jun. 25--D/FW AIRPORT -- They are specialists. Each day, 53 officers of the Transportation Security Administration duck into a nondescript room beneath Terminal B. From the room, the Central Monitoring Facility, or CMF, an elaborate system of camera feeds allows the specialists to peer inside checked bags to hunt for explosives or components. They use the same technology doctors use to look for tumors or brain damage.

Airports have examining rooms of sorts, and at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport you don't get to see them. They remotely examine bags that set off alarms, and if the job is done right, it means fewer times someone has to rifle through your underwear by hand to check your rifle.

In a pinch -- a fire, a bomb blows up -- the specialists can temporarily operate from remote locations. Otherwise, they are in the CMF.

"They're hard-lined to this room," said Jason Smith, in-line screening manager for the TSA at D/FW.

A blobby image appears on CMF screener Cody Cobb's screen.

It could be just about anything.

"It's a scale," Cobb said.

The next one's a laptop computer.

Uh, yeah, and you could tell that ... how?

"Experience," Smith said. "An improvised explosive device does contain electrical components. So we're more conscious of that."

"And there's a history of people using laptops," Federal Security Director Jimmy Wooten said.

"We get pigs -- they're whole," Smith said.

"Cans of tuna," Wooten said. "Raw fish." Yep, in luggage. Yep, not packed in ice, either.

"Deer carcasses, and not packed in ice ..."

CMF folks need to be able to tell the difference between the organic materials, wiring and housing of a homemade bomb and the organic materials, wiring and housing of, say, a microphone.

It's specialized work, the bosses agree.

On the other hand, the TSA's flat pay structure is such that these specialists don't make any more than the line screeners out by the checkpoints.

All screeners come in at around $23,600 per year (not including locality pay), and the pay track is rigid. With experience, a screener can expect to make about $35,400.There is talk of creating a "master screener" ranking that could add to the promotional chain, Wooten said. And there is preliminary talk, mostly at other airports, of a separate tier for screeners in the CMF. Also, screeners are no longer internally called screeners but transportation security officers.

It is an attempt to equate TSA screeners with other law enforcement and inspection officers and to distinguish them from other government service.

If you don't think there's much risk involved, however, consider the "resolution room" screener.

Even farther beneath the D/FW Airport terminals is a room where bags that set off alarms -- alarms that can't be resolved remotely from the CMF -- wind up.

Here screeners like David Oswald of Carrollton open the bags by hand to identify objects that set off the alarms.

Example: Oswald unzipped a suitcase and sifted through magazines, then a stack of books, making sure nothing is stuffed between the pages. He then checked a side pocket.

"It might be the wheel," he said, looking for the offending object at the base of the suitcase.

Nope.

It's jewelry.

Hey, no sweat, right?

But what if it's a bomb and it goes off?

In that case, the search would be considered a success because it foiled a terrorist. The resolution room screener, however, might be dead.

Does Oswald find the risk, minuscule as it is, worrisome?

"No, not at all," he said, getting back to work.

So here they are, hidden away -- the human element of the automated system -- operating a better mousetrap.

But how much better?

Estimates and reality

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