Behind X-ray machines, a more expert crew

All major US airports met a Nov. 19 deadline to implement federal security. Will it make a difference?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In some ways, America is moving with lightning-speed to bolster its defenses against terrorism. The latest proof: 44,000 white-shirted federal screeners newly standing watch at all 429 of the nation's airports.

While in other ways, the effort has only just begun - as seen in this week's continued congressional wrangling over starting up a homeland-security department.

Yet the government's ability to hire, outfit, and train the airport screeners - and surprise many by actually meeting the Nov. 19 deadline for doing so - gives some observers hope that Uncle Sam can make big, relatively quick strides toward preventing more attacks. Furthermore, if the screener-hiring is any guide, the emerging homeland-security blueprint is a uniquely American blend of big-government action, market-based pay incentives, and high-tech tools.

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Meeting the deadline "is a big victory - and it's one the government needed," says Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department official and frequent airline-safety critic. One immediate impact of having a better-trained, better-paid federal workforce in place: A boost in public confidence. In some ways, "a lot of this is for show" - to assure the traveling public that the skies are safe, says Ms. Schiavo.

Many travelers see a difference. "Right after 9/11, I felt totally insecure," says Edmund Funk, a businessman sitting in a baggage-claim area at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. But Mr. Funk says he's seen improvement, something he wouldn't have said even three months ago. On a recent trip, screeners let him keep a pair of nail clippers in his toiletry kit - but snatched away a Swiss Army knife he'd had for 30 years. "I forgot I had it. I wasn't mad. They were right to take it."

But in Miami's airport, as information-technology consultant Mike Neely gets his shoes shined, he says the impact of the new screeners is probably minimal. "It's all a function of pay scale," he says, while waiting for a plane to Santiago, Chile. "They need to get the wages to the point where they can attract reasonably competent people. I think it's all economics."

Indeed, the economics and other elements of screeners' jobs have changed - although it's too early to tell if the changes are sufficient. The biggest, says Schiavo: The screeners don't work for the airline companies anymore. Airlines had incentives to rush passengers through checkpoints to ensure on-time departures.

Old screeners typically received little more than minimum-wage pay - and few benefits. This led to turnover rates of up to 120 percent per year. New screeners get an average of $23,600 to $35,400 - plus full health-care coverage, life insurance, and paid vacation.

The job requirements are tougher, too. New screeners must speak English - and read it at a 9th-grade level. They must pass a series of mental and physical tests. Then they are given 44 hours of classroom training - and 60 hours of on-the-job instruction.

Despite being civil servants - who typically have strong job security - new screeners are generally held accountable. One screener who falsely reported a security breach in Portland, Ore., was fired within a week of the incident.

Two Miami screeners are on paid leave after a Nov. 14 incident that led to the evacuation of five concourses. One appeared to be sleeping. Another didn't notice when two passengers walked into a secure area through an exit lane.

Indeed, some passengers say there's still a lack of common sense. "I was singled out by security in Atlanta because of an electric toothbrush in my carry-on bag," says an impatient Brenda Salton, a Boston banker who's passing through Miami.

Despite such missteps, the great hope is that the new system will prove that capitalism's great incentive works - that better pay brings better performance.

Critics are already focusing on the seeming hordes of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners at most checkpoints. They quip TSA might as well mean "Thousands Standing Around."

And there are criticisms of random checks, when passengers are singled out for extra scrutiny.

"They pull like every 10th person. One time it was a 13-year-old boy," says Funk, the Chicago traveler, adding he would rather see males age 18 to 35 targeted.

Indeed, experts say the next frontiers include the constitutionally complicated effort to profile passengers - to identify risky travelers before they get to screening areas.

In the meantime, the focus shifts to the more formidable Dec. 31 deadline for scrutinizing the 1 billion or so bags loaded into bellies of US airplanes every year. Airports are scrambling to make room for mini-van-sized machines that do much of the checking.

If and when the homeland-security bill passes Congress, there is a provision that allows some airports an extension on the deadline. But TSA officials say that only about 5 percent of airports will need it. Boston's Logan and Los Angeles International AX in Los Angeles appear on track to meet the deadline, for instance. Dallas-Fort Worth reportedly is not.

Terry Costlow in Chicago and Jennifer LeClaire in Miami contributed to this report.

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