U.S. airports ponder a surplus of security
By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Ryan Palmer, a Houston college student, hadn't flown since his Christmas holiday in Florida last year. At Tampa International Airport last week, Palmer said the security he encountered on this year's trip surprised him.
"Well, for one thing, the big guns are gone, and I guess I didn't know that," Palmer said, referring to the automatic weapons carried by National Guard troops patrolling airports at this time last year. "The new screeners look a lot more official than the other ones, and they're very thorough. But there are so many of them. Do they all have something to do?"
That's a question a lot of fliers are asking as the Christmas season builds toward its travel peak and more travelers encounter the new corps of federal screeners at the nation's 429 commercial airports.
Do they all have something to do? Not yet. But the government insists they will soon.
The Transportation Security Administration hired nearly 50,000 screeners this year to replace about 37,000 private contract screeners, whose searches of passengers and carryon bags became infamous for their laxity. The new hires are better paid, better trained and better dressed, and there are more of them because they have a lot more work to do, including screening at gates, overseeing security equipment and, soon, screening checked bags.
But some members of Congress already are asking how long the nation can afford to pay for this level of security. The cost of the new screeners is estimated at 3.5 times more than the old ones, and that doesn't include massive expenditures on new equipment.
"The agency is running out of money like a young child whose money burns a hole in the pocket," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee. "We will not hire a standing army of 70,000 people to screen your bags, take off your shoes and check your briefcases."
At TIA, there were 350 private screeners when the federal government took over their contracts from the airlines. According to Dario Compain, the federal security director at TIA, there are 825 TSA screeners there now, an increase of nearly 136 percent.
"Dario does have more employees now than he needs, and he admits that," said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. "But that will go away when we start to move more personnel over to the explosive detection equipment."
In addition, the normal ebb and flow of passengers can convey the wrong impression.
"It does appear at times that there are people standing around with nothing to do, but that's because a half an hour later they're going to be jammed," Miller said. "It's no different than going into a Burger King at an off time. You see people standing around. But during the lunch rush, they're working their tails off. You hire people for eight-hour shifts. You can't hire for peak travel times."
For Keith Simmons, head of an environmental construction and engineering firm in Valrico, the extra screeners give him a measure of comfort when he flies several times a week.
"It seems like there are a lot more people, but they're all busy because there's more to do," Simmons aid. "I feel a lot better about flying with them on the job than I used to under the old system."
Gina Marie Lindsey, managing director of aviation at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said she, too, was surprised at the number of screeners the TSA hired.
"There's a bunch of them, yeah, but one of our early concerns was that TSA would give the screening crews short shrift, and we'd wind up with long lines, long waits and, potentially, flight delays," Lindsey said.
"That hasn't happened. There's some room for shrinkage in the ranks, I think, and that will happen as some screeners move into other jobs. It's better to start with too many and scale back than not to have enough."
At other airports, however, the new screeners are almost too much of a good thing.
"They're almost becoming a congestion factor," said Richard Vacar, director of aviation for the Houston Airport System. "The other day, in Terminal C (at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport) they held a preshift briefing, and they took up nearly all the area where passengers had to walk to get through the terminal. . . . We can't have screeners clogging the terminals."
It's hard to get a handle on what this level of passenger and baggage screening is costing American taxpayers because the Transportation Security Administration doesn't actually have a budget yet. TSA is slated to become part of the new Department of Homeland Security, and Congress didn't approve creation of the agency until the last days of its session last month.
But a ballpark guess on costs is possible.
Screener salaries range from $23,600 to $35,400; the midpoint is $29,500. If that is also the average salary for 50,000 screeners, the total outlay would be almost $1.5-billion annually. If benefits add another 25 percent, a conservative estimate, that is almost $370-million more, for a total outlay of nearly $1.85-billion. And that doesn't even begin to include administrative and executive personnel.
By contrast, the private screeners earned little more than the minimum wage and got no benefits. If their wages averaged $7 an hour and vacation was unpaid, they earned an average of $14,000 a year, and the annual cost was a little over $500-million.
Moreover, during most of the time a private screening corps existed, their contracts were paid for by the airlines.
The question is how long the country can afford this.
"That's a matter for Congress to decide," said Robert Johnson, spokesman for TSA in Washington.
Some in Congress began questioning the cost of TSA's program as early as last summer.
"We need an efficient TSA," said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. "We don't need a big bureaucracy."
TSA heard the complaints and, Johnson said, has abandoned plans to create a federal police force to oversee security checkpoints at the airports. Local police have been fulfilling those duties under contracts with the TSA.
"The local police are doing a fine job," Johnson said. "We don't see any reason to create another layer of bureaucracy that apparently we don't need."
But it's not just personnel driving up security costs.
TIA alone has 10 of the minivan-sized Explosive Detection Systems at a cost to TSA of $1-million each, and 83 trace detectors that sniff out explosive residue on bags at a cost of $40,000 each. That's another $13.3-million just at TIA.
TSA declines to say how many of the machines will be deployed nationwide, but they will soak up a lot of the new screeners. Trace detectors can be operated with one person. But the big EDS machines require from three to six people to load, unload and monitor the results of the scans.
Most airports around the county plan eventually to incorporate the explosives detectors into their baggage delivery systems, so the bags will be fed into and out of the screeners automatically as they make their way from check-in to airplane. TIA plans to have the conversions done by next November. Many other airports must undergo extensive renovations to reach the same end.
The process is not only faster but requires considerably less human involvement. At that point, TSA could find itself with surplus screeners.
TSA hasn't yet tackled the issue of what will happen then.
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