tampabay.com

Travelers now shrug off terror's price

Early resistance to the inconveniences of security checks has given way to acceptance.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published September 8, 2006


TAMPA - On a routine Wednesday in August, here's who was coming through a security checkpoint at Tampa International Airport: a man with a white collar and cuff links, a woman in red stiletto heels, a teenager with a Phat Farm T-shirt, a little girl with a pink Mickey and Minnie suitcase and an older woman with lime-green pants and an artificial knee.

Watching them was Wayne Gonsalves, mild-mannered screener for the Transportation Security Administration.

Ma'am?" he said to a woman in white sweats with a couple of tiny kids. "Is this your purse?"

Another screener opened the woman's purse and pulled out a cell phone, a wallet, keys and a silver metal pen. The woman was free to go.

"Nobody knows what the bad guy looks like," John Van Dyke, the Transportation Security Administration's training coordinator at TIA, said later that day.

In the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent creation of the TSA, and since last month's liquid-bomb plot in London, air travel has become a long and ever-shifting list of restrictions. But early resistance to inconvenience and loss of personal liberty is gradually, quietly giving way to acceptance that terrorism exacts a price from everyone.

"A cultural change," said Dario Compain, the TSA's federal security director in Tampa.

And Wayne Gonsalves has seen it happen.

* * *

With an average of about 60,000 passengers a day, TIA is a criss-cross of trams, escalators and elevators, up and down, back and forth. Everybody is in between where they were and where they want or need to be.

TIA has about 500 of the 43,000 screeners at more than 400 airports nationwide.

Gonsalves, 45, is at Airside A. He was one of the earliest hires, in August 2002.

"I'm helping defend my country," he said.

He was born in the Caribbean and moved to Long Island, N.Y., when he was 16. He finished high school and joined the U.S. Army because he thought it was an honor.

"I didn't think they had to let me come into this country," he said. "But they did."

After 21 years in the military, he now lives in Spring Hill, in Hernando County, and leaves at 3:30 in the morning to drive in the dark down the Suncoast Parkway to make it to his early shift.

A divorced father, he says his three children are going to college - not into the military.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in Fort Drum, N.Y., and a soldier on the base said something about a plane crashing into a building in New York.

"That's when everything got shut down and tightened up," Gonsalves said.

* * *

Security at airports before 9/11 was done by private employees, hired by the airlines, who did sporadic checks.

TSA, which took over in 2002, has gone from hasty startup to hiring spree to reactive tweaks. Critics point to questions about attrition, training and performance, but the agency has an expanding role in national intelligence.

"We sit at the table" with the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense, TSA spokesman Christopher White said last month.

Screeners need to be a U.S. citizen, speak English, have at least a GED and two working eyes and the ability to lift as much as 70 pounds. They must pass criminal and financial background checks.

All screeners get at least 40 hours of classroom training and at least 60 hours of on-the-job training and regular testing. Fail twice and lose the job. The starting salary in Tampa is less than $27,000 a year.

And all of them take a federal oath of office.

"I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies" is how it starts. "So help me God" is how it ends.

Screening begins when travelers pass through a metal detector and bags go through an X-ray machine. It intensifies when the metal detector beeps or the X-ray shows something unusual, or sometimes just because. The next step includes "wanding" by hand, checks of carry-on bags, and the trace detection machine known as the "puffer."

"We try to define what strange looks like," said Van Dyke, the TSA training coordinator.

As for how they do that, and what they're looking for, and who they're looking at, and why: "I can't go into a lot of detail," said Dario Compain, Tampa-based TSA federal security director, "because this is sensitive security information.

One thing the TSA does say: Protocol is always changing.

Taking shoes off used to be "strongly recommended" but not mandatory. Now, everyone has to take them off.

Congress banned lighters in June 2005. Small scissors were allowed again in December.

The recent focus, even before last month's London plot, has been on explosives.

And after London? No mascara. No shampoo or suntan lotion or bottled water. No baby teethers with gel.

"We're learning as we go," Compain said.

They're not alone.

* * *

Immediately after 9/11, TSA officials say, there were mainly two kinds of travelers in this country:

1. Do what you need to do. Whatever it takes.

2. Don't touch me. Can't you tell I'm not a terrorist?

Many passengers were disruptive, rude and impatient, Gonsalves said.

"The attitude was that they're Americans and the others were the ones who were causing the problem," he said.

Americans like to brag about their liberties, said Compain, the TSA security director.

"They weren't used to going to an airport and going into that type of screening," he said. "There were a lot of things the American passenger had to concede. ... You've got to have a mindset that when I go to the airport, not only myself but my baggage will be subject to search.

It wasn't easy.

"The inconvenience of it all is tremendous," said Dipak K. Gupta, a terrorism expert at San Diego State University. "How much more can we take? How far can we go? But people have a way of adjusting to discomfort or inconvenience."

The change happened, step by step, little by little, over the course of a year or two or three.

"It used to be about every other passenger had a negative comment," Gonsalves said. "Now I'd say 1 in 10 you'll hear something negative. When I first took this job, a lot of people, a lot of Americans, they believed only certain people should be screened. But I think they've accepted the fact that it could be anyone."

* * *

Five years out. Security is constant cat-and-mouse between the TSA and other intelligence agencies and the people who are bent on pulling planes out of the sky.

"We're never going to be in a position where we've fully met the threat," David M. Stone, the former head of the TSA, told the Los Angeles Times after the London incident.

And the day after the thwarted attacks, Julie Beasley, 31, was quoted by the New York Times as she tossed into the trash her lotion and lip gloss before boarding a flight.

"I'm throwing away my whole face," she said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Times staff writer Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.