The Unseen Protectors of Air Travel

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

Baggage security had been part of the Federal Aviation Administration's charge for more than a decade before 9-11. After the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in-line prototypes were developed, but U.S. security officials focused on a potential attack from Europe, and momentum at U.S. airports stalled. Only 5 percent of bags were inspected, according to officials who worked on the systems. The new systems check 100 percent.

After 9-11, many U.S. airports began constructing in-line baggage systems based on the research already done. At D/FW, a design was ready in December 2001.

A few years ago, the figures that officials used to discuss performance of in-line baggage systems were educated guesses, based on designers' intent, tests and experience at non-U.S. airports. In early 2004, the Star-Telegram reported that such systems would set off an alarm on 15 percent of bags. On-screen scanning would resolve 80 percent of those. The remaining 3 percent of the bags would need to be inspected by hand. Based on 55,000 daily checked bags at D/FW, the airport would expect 1,650 bags to go to the "resolution room."

That was way off.

With the bulk of D/FW's system a year old, here are the in-line performance numbers:

Terminals B-E are part of the in-line system.

Although D/FW bag traffic fluctuates day to day, the in-line system typically handles 38,000 bags. Of these, about 20 percent -- 7,600 bags -- set off at least one alarm, Wooten said. Each alarm -- and there may be more than one per bag -- must be resolved before the bag can be loaded.

Images of the 7,600 bags that set off an alarm are sent to the CMF where the specialists try to resolve each alarm.

The CMF clears 35 percent of bags that set off an alarm and sends them to the flights, Wooten said.

Almost 5,000 bags go to the "resolution room," where federal inspectors use equipment to detect traces of explosives. If necessary, they unpack baggage and do a hand search.

From day to day, however, the numbers can vary wildly, officials said.

"It seems like on a bad day every other bag alarms," Wooten said.

Bags from international flights tend to set off alarms more, said Todd Swearingen, TSA assistant federal security director, because long-distance travelers tend to pack more food, and organic compounds set off alarms.

And there's the whole pig or deer carcass now and then.

Why am I still lugging my luggage at Terminal A?

After 9-11, many U.S. airports, including Dallas/Fort Worth, made room in ticket lobbies for bomb-detecting machines to meet a congressional mandate that all bags be checked for explosives.

Starting in April 2005, the Transportation Security Administration began a rollout of an in-line baggage handling system at D/FW, where bags would pass by conveyor belt through bomb-detecting machines incorporated into the belt system. As systems at Terminals B through E became operational, ticket lobbies were emptied of the old machines. But not in Terminal A.

Under the original June 2003 agreement, the TSA and D/FW shared the cost of building systems for Terminals B, D and E. The TSA paid 75 percent and D/FW the rest. The Federal Aviation Administration provided grant money for the Terminal C system. Separately, the TSA also agreed to pay for 100 percent of a Terminal A system that was "subject to availability of funding."

The project stalled because of budget constraints.

TSA and D/FW then went into long negotiations for a solution, which now includes construction by DFWIA Integrated Partners.

"We're two years from A coming on line," said Jimmy Wooten, federal security director for the TSA at D/FW. Basically, it is six months of engineering followed by 18 months of construction, Wooten said. When the work is done, D/FW, which already has the largest in-line system in the world, will have 53 Explosive Detection System machines, up from 46.

SOURCES: TSA, Star-Telegram archives

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Bryon Okada, 817-390-7752 okada@star-telegram.com

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