Last fall, Condé Nast Traveler aviation correspondent Barbara S. Peterson applied to work as a Transportation Security Administration screener. Her mission: to investigate reports that despite a five-year, $20 billion overhaul of the passenger screening system, checkpoint personnel are failing at the job. Being hired was only her first surprise. Peterson’s two months at the airport revealed how this overtaxed but dedicated workforce copes with equipment shortages, budget cuts, and record numbers of (not very pleasant) passengers. Here is an unprecedented look at the reality of America’s last line of defense
In September and October of last year, I worked for the Transportation Security Administration as an airport screener-in-training. To protect the privacy of my former co-workers, I have altered the names of the screeners mentioned in this story and have not identified the airport where I worked.
It is 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in October. This should be a slow day at the airport, but we are one week into the new security regime—a thicket of regulations designed to eliminate the bomb-making potential of heretofore innocent items ranging from mascara to infant formula—and things are not going smoothly. In August, authorities in London uncovered a plot by a group of terror suspects to take down half a dozen airliners using liquid explosives camouflaged in beverage containers. Immediately, all liquids were banned from flights. Now, more than a month later, the Transportation Security Administration has come up with a convoluted compromise, permitting each passenger a liquid allowance. Confusion reigns: A mass of passengers creep toward the checkpoint in stocking feet, juggling shoes, carry-ons, computers, and plastic bags containing doll-size bottles of shampoo and other toiletries.
I am manning the walk-through metal detector and simultaneously keeping an eye on what some of us mockingly refer to as “the pen,” a makeshift holding area for the unfortunates who’ve been selected for further scrutiny. I’ve learned two things about this task since I joined the ranks of TSA screeners a month ago: You can’t predict who will be picked for a more thorough inspection, and there’s no good way to break the news to them.
The author in situ during one of the two 30-minute breaks she was given during her six-hour shifts. TSA policy calls for only two 15-minute breaks.
The area where passengers are directed to await further screening is known as “the pen.” We were supposed to hang on to the boarding passes of anyone held here to keep them from bolting, but some would walk off anyway.
In spite of a media blitz on the liquids ban, many fliers had heard nothing about it during the first week. I had to ask passengers to surrender fine wines and a gallon of cooking oil, as well as empty the water from a vase of roses.
Even if it was “just between us girls,” as one passenger joked to me, the hardest part f the job was having to grope perfect strangers. “I am now coming to a sensitive area,” was the line we were told to use at a moment like this.
Every day, two million passengers pass through TSA checkpoints.
The near-ban on liquids does have some exceptions: I was allowed to let pint-sized passengers hang onto their formula, and fliers with proper documentation could carry on liquid medications.
The TSA rolled out its “simplified” 3-1-1 campaign last fall: liquids in three-ounce (or smaller) containers, all stored in a one-quart zip-top plastic bag for each flier. We still had to explain the rules.
In the freewheeling pre-TSA days, female passengers often complained about inappropriate pat-downs by male screeners. Today’s searches are even more invasive but are done by screeners of the same gender.
Before 9/11, many screeners spoke minimal English. Today, they have to pass an English-language comprehension test and are also taught communication skills such as how to defuse tense situations.
Passengers surrendered nearly 14 million prohibited items at TSA checkpoints in 2006, including 11.6 million lighters and 1.6 million knives, suggesting that few use the self-service mail kiosks at some airports.
A hand wanding won’t necessarily detect a weapon concealed behind a belt buckle or a metal fastener, so I was frequently charged with the delicate task of checking behind the waistline.
Travelers with disabilities who cannot go through the metal detector must be hand wanded or patted down. I spent a half-day in class learning how to screen disabled travelers.
The most nerve-racking part of searching a carry-on was getting all the contents back into the bag. The TSA receives more than 12,000 complaints a year about items lost, stolen, or damaged during the screening of checked and carry-on bags.
Educating passengers on the more than 80 items prohibitied on airplanes is a job shared with airlines and airports. What this sign does not say is that anything of value surrendered at checkpoints may end up being sold by local authorities on eBay.
A woman on crutches hobbles through the portal and hands me her boarding pass, which bears the dreaded code. “Ma’am,” I stammer, “you’ve been selected for, uh …additional screening.” Behind her wait her four children toting bulging backpacks, each with a boarding pass that indicates they too will need to be inspected.
“I do not believe it!” the woman shrieks at full volume, threatening me with bodily harm if I go anywhere near her children. I empathize: She and her brood are now facing a frisking, a hand wanding, and a search of their belongings, which may be tested for traces of explosives.
Reeled in by the commotion, a fellow screener tries to calm the woman down. “Actually, ma’am, the TSA didn’t select you,” he says. “The airline selected you.”
This is what we’ve been told to say to fliers who complain about this auto-da-fé; for once, we can honestly deflect the blame away from the TSA. But the excuse is in fact an admission of glaring deficiencies that persist in the way we screen passengers. We are using a minor variation on the same flawed system for identifying suspicious persons that failed on 9/11.
I wasn’t taught why certain passengers are chosen for additional screening, but I know from my years covering aviation security as a reporter that some are picked at random and others are selected because of certain red flags. Chances are that whatever computer reviewed this family’s data when they checked in saw only a group of five people traveling together on a one-way, last-minute booking. In other words, the M.O. of a terrorist cell on 9/11. I learn the real story when the woman angrily relates that her mother has just died and they are flying to the funeral. They didn’t book a return flight because they weren’t sure how long they would be staying.
I am struck by the fact that at this major urban airport, five years after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, we are still relying on the same rudimentary tools that have been used for decades to detect who is a true threat: physical pat-downs and basic X-ray technology along with the out-of-date passenger pre-screening that continues to bedevil people such as the woman before me.
Mercifully, a supervisor swoops in and excuses the two youngest members of the group from a full pat-down; the others are checked and found to be weapon-free. They make their flight. A businessman who is about to miss his because of this kerfuffle looks at me and mutters, “When are you guys going to start using your brains?”
Six months earlier, I had spotted a job advertisement online for part-time airport security screeners. The posting was notable for its dry recitation of the drawbacks of the job, as if to discourage all but the most desperate from applying. “This is a very physically demanding job with unique requirements,” it read; I’d have to stand for up to four hours without a break, lift seventy-pound bags, and walk the equivalent of two miles during my shift. I would be expected to maintain my cool while dealing with constant stress from the noise, crowds, and “disruptive and angry passengers,” which I couldn’t let distract me from my ultimate objective: to ferret out what it described as “devices intended on creating massive destruction.” For this I’d be paid $13.91 an hour; I’d work weekends, holidays, and odd hours; and I’d remain on probation for two years, during which time I could be fired without warning.
As a journalist, I had followed reports of poor morale in the screener ranks and the disturbing leaked reports about screeners failing to detect bomb components in undercover tests. I was mystified by the idea that after a five-year, $20 billion investment overhauling the system, federal screeners were no better at their jobs than the poorly trained private workers they had replaced. Could it be true, as critics allege, that all we got for our money was “security theater”—a show that does little more than make us feel safer? I also knew that the TSA had been working with Israeli security experts recently to develop a smarter approach to screening which would focus on finding dangerous people rather than dangerous items. The chance to get an inside look was irresistible.
It takes two minutes to fill out the information requested on the application and press the send button. Within three weeks, I receive an e-mail saying that I’ve made it past the first round. I then report to a location I was told not to reveal, for a surprisingly arduous test of my aptitude for picking weapons out of what amounts to a lineup of X-ray images of baggage. After an hour, I leave with a throbbing headache and the conviction that I’ve failed completely. But that same day, I receive another e-mail from the TSA with an effusive opener: “Congratulations! You have passed the…test to become a transportation security officer with the TSA.”
Within a few days, I am directed by another e-mail communiqué to a TSA office at an airport. There, I am fingerprinted and consent to the expected background investigation. (I have no reason to assume it wasn’t done, but not one of the half-dozen references I gave, including people who have worked with me professionally, was contacted.)
My “interviews” are so detached and impersonal that they could have been carried out by a robot. My first face-to-face with a TSA official consists of my sitting mutely while she reads to me stiffly from a script. I am then ushered into a different office, where another interviewer asks me a series of generic questions that he reads from his computer screen (“Have you ever helped anyone in need without being asked?”). The queries offer no opportunity for probing, and never during the hiring process am I asked about my reasons for wanting this job. One assistant tells me: “We are supposed to ask everyone the same questions,” which, if correct, seems a rather literal-minded interpretation of a government-fairness policy.
When I’m contacted by phone, I get the odd feeling that I’m talking to someone in a telemarketing center. When I finally ask where the caller is located, I learn that I’m not dealing with the TSA directly but with Accenture HR Services, a division of the giant consultancy which was created out of the remains of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm. A quick check on the Internet reveals that Accenture and another recruiting firm, CPS Human Resource Services, were hired as a sort of “rent-a-personnel department” for the fledgling TSA. The contracts were valued at $776 million over five years. Although the TSA is hardly hiring at the pace it was five years ago—when some sixty thousand employees were needed to fill the ranks—the contracts with the two consultants are still in effect.
I wait for the next call, and within a few days it comes. I am asked how fast I can get to a clinic, where I can dispense with the last remaining step, a drug test and physical exam. I report to a shabby facility, where I spend several hours sitting in a crowded waiting room for what turns out to be a cursory test of my eyesight and hearing. The staff seem to be unaware which federal agency I am applying to, and I remind them that they’ll need a urine sample when they seem ready to dismiss me. The following day, I get a call from a very pleasant woman who tells me there was a “problem” with the physical and explains that the clinic forgot to test my stamina. This is a sensitive issue: screeners have one of the federal government’s highest rates of job-related injuries, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the TSA spends more than fifty million dollars a year in disability payments. Since injuries are mainly due to hoisting checked luggage and overstuffed carry-ons, weeding out weaklings from the pool of recruits is a high priority. When I tell the woman that I fear a return trip to the clinic will set the hiring process back another few weeks, she sweetly reassures me. “Don’t worry, hon, you won’t have to go back. Are you sitting down?”
I dutifully take a seat at the kitchen table.
“Now, lift your arm. Can you bend it?”
This, then, is how I finally become a transportation security officer: sitting alone in my bathrobe in a suburban kitchen, flapping my arms around and hoping that this bizarre pantomime is not an indication of what is to come.
On a Monday morning in September, I travel to a hotel on the outskirts of the airport to be sworn in as a screener.
“This is not like being on the assembly line! It’s not like working at the mall!” a tall, ruddy-faced man standing at the front of the room roars at me and the dozens of other new screeners in the hotel banquet room. An assistant to the local federal security director, he is here to induct us into government service. We’re groggy after hours spent filling out routine forms, and this fevered peroration is a welcome diversion.
“You are the last line of defense! Your life will literally be in danger!” he continues. The young man sitting next to me is impressed. “Like, this is our boss? He’s really a cool guy.” For a few moments, we’re invited to imagine our importance on the front lines of the war on terror.
But before we can get to the action at the airport, we must undergo what we are promised will be a grueling two-week regimen of ten-hour-a-day classes—a sharp contrast to the ten hours of classroom instruction and twenty to thirty hours of on-the-job training pre-9/11 screeners got from their private employers. The intensive instruction we’re facing is one of the many reforms in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act passed by Congress two months after 9/11. The message drummed into us today is that we’re entering a boot camp from which only a few lucky aspirants will emerge.
The next morning, when we report to our classroom in a nearby office building, our numbers have already dwindled: There are twenty of us, ranging in age from early twenties to early sixties and including a retired air-traffic controller, an emergency medical technician, a former hotel concierge, and several college students and laid-off airline workers. Our diversity is largely a function of our status as part-timers—in fact, the airport hasn’t had any full-time openings in several months due to budget constraints. The part-time hiring spree that brought me and the others in was supposed to help airports fill staffing shortages after Congress cut the national full-time screener workforce from a high of sixty thousand in 2003 to forty-three thousand today. But apparently at big airports like mine, it’s not having the desired effect: Turnover among part-time screeners can be as high as fifty percent, about double the rate for screeners overall. Within a few days, I learn what could be at least part of the reason for the high turnover: Some trainees confess that they hope to use the screener post as a springboard to an easier job with better hours at another federal agency, such as the Customs Service, and that they aren’t planning a career with the TSA.
Joe, our training instructor, is an Army veteran and a former marketing executive who joined the TSA after he lost his job in the aftermath of 9/11. “It is really important for us to remember that day,” he tells us on our first day of training. “Keep it in mind when things get hard on the job. Don’t let complacency get in the way.”
This is more than a mere pep talk. I soon learn from current screeners that management has been on edge lately: The TSA’s much feared Red Team recently made an appearance, and it seems the results were less than stellar. The Red Team is a cadre of undercover inspectors who test screeners’ mettle by attempting to smuggle weapons and other illicit items past checkpoints; those who fail to spot the contraband get sent back to class for remedial training. Test results are supposed to be confidential, but dismal scores from several airports, including Newark and Orlando, were leaked to the media last year: More than half the screeners tested reportedly flunked one of the exercises.
I also learn that because of the staffing shortage, our airport has, in the words of one official who works there, “held on to bad apples probably longer than we should have.” An airport theft ring involving screeners was uncovered in the area several years ago. Now, I’m told, airport officials are pushing to rush recruits through training and on to the job so they can begin to clean house. Mass firings are rumored to be in the works.
The job seems more daunting each consecutive day, as we’re taught to navigate the uneasy nexus of security and customer service. On the wall of the training room is a constant reminder of how we’ll be expected to straddle both worlds: A slick poster bearing the I AM TSA logo and the portrait of an attractive screener—part of a new in-house campaign to humanize us—hangs beside a crudely drawn rendering of a skull and crossbones signifying our mandate to keep bomb components and terrorists off planes.
By the end of two weeks, two of my classmates have dropped out and another two have failed the battery of multiple-choice and threat-identification tests we’re given at the end of the course. But the laggards are given another chance, which I interpret as a subtle message that the TSA will do what it can to ensure that we all make our way to posts at the airport across the street. Most of us are ready: We have mastered the arcana of how to screen all manner of carry-on gear—everything from crematory urns to the service monkeys that some disabled passengers are allowed to take through security. We’re also instructed on how to spot bomb components in X-ray images, but some of the information we’re force-fed during our training is already out of date: We’re repeatedly told, “You’ll have to unlearn this when you get to the airport,” because procedures have changed. We spend hours being taught how to operate explosives-detection machines, including models that we’ll never see because our airport hasn’t acquired them. The training materials, I learn, are from another giant government contractor, Lockheed Martin. While the TSA obviously dictates the content of the materials, procedural updates apparently take a long time to move through the pipeline.
Near the end of our training, the TSA issues its new rules on liquids, which allow small amounts of shampoo, toothpaste, and other toiletries to be carried on to planes as long as they’re in containers of three ounces or less that fit into a quart-size zip-top bag. The ban on all liquids was harsh, but at least it was easy to understand. When we’re told of the new rules, we realize that it will take all the communications skills we can muster to explain the revised ban to the traveling public.
“Be happy you are not at the airport today,” we’re told by an instructor. But within days, we are.
It is 5:45 a.m., less than an hour into my first day on the job, and already I am failing miserably. I had no idea that this pre-dawn hour is considered prime time at the checkpoint where I’m working. My first assignment is to monitor the walk-through metal detector and assess the readiness of passengers to enter the portal. I am to scream the litany of instructions across the barrier so that no passengers will dare approach me wearing their shoes, coats, or other any verboten gear.
“Remove all jackets and footwear,” I recite, weakly. “If you have a laptop, take it out of its case and put it in a bin by itself….”
I feel ridiculous. Passengers on the other side of the metal detector tune me out (assuming they can even hear me) as if I were a barely intelligible train station announcer. After years of traveling through airports just like this one, I find it unnerving to be on the other side; I realize that I too was one of these distracted fliers who ignored the monotonous droning which I am now directing their way. Not long ago, a “line monitor” would have stood on the other side of the barricade to explain the rules and help passengers prepare for screening. But that post was apparently considered the most expendable of the checkpoint chores and isn’t always staffed at many airports to save money. Today, as passengers fumble with clothing and cosmetics, that decision seems questionable at best.
I soldier on, improvising, because we’re not given scripts or told precisely what to say. “No liquids, gels, or aerosols allowed unless they are…” I stumble on my words. “Uh…in travel-size containers.”
“Barbara, what is travel-size exactly?”
I’m working with Carole, a preternaturally calm former social worker, who nonetheless makes her displeasure with my performance clear.
“C’mon, Barbara, I can’t hear you,” she says in singsong. The other screeners laugh at me. I don’t even have a uniform yet: I wear the requisite navy pants and white shirt that got me through training, but I feel as out of place as a student driver in a NASCAR race. Things only get worse when a pilot comes through and, offended by my casual attire, demands to see my I.D. “Oh, great, I’m trying to make my flight and she’s being trained,” he grouses for the benefit of my colleagues.
Within an hour, two of the three lanes at our location are shut down because of possible radiation leakage from the X-ray machines—an inspection reveals that the heavy flaps which seal the compartment are defective. A co-worker who’s been on the job since before 9/11 tells me that screeners used to be given dosimeters to measure their exposure to radiation but that the devices were eliminated in a cost-cutting measure. We were told in training that OSHA has determined that our exposure levels are acceptable, and that is the last time I hear it mentioned. It takes days before the machines are back up and running.
My first day as a screener would have been trying under any circumstances, but the new rules on liquids are testing the patience of screeners and passengers alike. Not only are travelers supposed to pack permitted toiletries in a separate zip-top bag—quart-size, not gallon—but they must remove the bag from their carry-on for inspection. The definition of liquid or gel is so tortured, meanwhile, that we don’t even try to condense all of it into a manageable sound bite—and travelers invariably trip up.
What ensues is the kind of Kabuki dance that makes screeners such fodder for late-night comedy. I get a taste of this when I’m assigned to the “property search” patrol, which means that I must rifle through people’s bags in search of suspect items spotted by the X-ray operator. A typical scene goes like this: After getting the signal that there may be a bottle of something in a bag, I scurry to the conveyor belt and identify the owner, and we march over to a table alongside the checkpoint. The flier, unaware of the humiliation that awaits, is generally cooperative. Wearing the TSA’s regulation rubber gloves, I paw through the bag, pushing aside everything from underwear to adult diapers, and discover the offending item or items—usually an assortment of toiletries that exceed the three-ounce limit or that aren’t packed in the proper plastic bag. I break the news to the traveler that he’s run afoul of the rules, at which point his calm demeanor evaporates, replaced by reactions ranging from a hurt look to outrage (“I just spent twelve dollars on this stuff, and now you’re telling me I have to throw it out!”). Almost no one realizes that they are supposed to extract the plastic bag from their carry-on and put it through the X-ray separately. Some screeners are less than sympathetic; I hear one telling someone pleading ignorance, “Well, it was all over the news!” which seems beside the point, since no two-minute segment could possibly capture this edict’s byzantine complexities. And then I get scolded, too, for prefacing my search with “I’m sorry but…”
“You must never apologize,” I am told. But somehow the ritualistic disclaimer—”We don’t make the rules, we’re just doing our job”—seems inadequate under the circumstances. I try to strike a balance between officiousness and empathy. When an imposing and attractive man with a beautiful wife and two children comes through clutching two bottles of Poland Spring water, I promptly confiscate them. The man is sincerely apologetic, and my embarrassment at my role in this exercise is only made worse when one of my colleagues pulls me aside and whispers: “Hey, you just took Allen Iverson’s water!” referring to the NBA star whom I failed to recognize.
But the most common response from the public is an incredulous “Nobody told me about this!” And they have a point. Coming back from my mid-morning break, I walk to the other side of the checkpoint to see what passengers are—or aren’t—being told by the TSA, since they are getting little guidance from the airlines. Posted on either side of the checkpoint, in bureaucratic jargon and small type, are two signs detailing the rules. But they contradict each other: One sign describes the new regime, the other explains the rules that were in place in August. Aside from that, the only other guidance comes from a tattered sheet of paper hanging from the opening to the X-ray machine. It reads REMOVE ALL SHOES.
I mention this to a supervisor. She explains that there’s not much more we can do in the way of signage because of the lack of funds, although they do later cover up the out-of-date sign.
Near the end of my six-hour shift, I’m achy, unaccustomed to standing for hours and lifting bags that feel like they’re full of bricks. Just then a buzz goes through the checkpoint—Senator Hillary Clinton is on her way. We all stand as if at attention as she arrives with her secret service agents, smiling vaguely in our direction. I notice that she does not go through normal screening but enters a special lane reserved for law enforcement officers and pilots authorized to carry guns, a privilege accorded to her as a former first lady. Mere politicians must present a plastic bag like everyone else.
“If it gets past you, it’s getting on the plane.” This becomes our mantra, drummed into us during training—mainly in discussions of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, which are the threat du jour and thus staples of the evening news. It is surprising, though, that while we are supposed to focus on spotting components of these makeshift bombs in carry-on bags or hidden on the passengers themselves, the tools we’re given are a hand wand and conventional X-ray machines that display bags only in two-dimensional images. We do, of course, have the requisite explosives-trace-detection machine to test carry-on bags for the most minute particle of explosives. At fifty thousand dollars apiece, these are marvels of technology, but only a small fraction of bags are checked with them. Not to mention the fact that the plastic swabbing wands which we’re supposed to use have been permanently misplaced and we simply make do with our hands.
Meanwhile, it seems that nearly every day the press reports on the latest dazzling security equipment which will speed up screening and detect banned items with unerring accuracy. If the hype is to be believed, all this could make many screeners’ jobs redundant. It’s clear that we could benefit from better tools—state-of-the-art X-ray machines, for instance, that use computer-based 3-D modeling and software to do some of the initial analysis. But the journey from laboratory to airport terminal is painfully slow. Because of its size and location, the airport where I work is designated by the federal government as one of the biggest terrorist targets in aviation. As such, it should logically be at the top of the priority list to receive new screening technology. But I hear from airport sources that plans to install so-called puffer devices here were called off. (These machines electronically “sniff” fliers for explosives and other contraband and can eliminate the more time-consuming manual pat-downs of passengers.) I hear that a dispute between the airlines and the airport managers over where to place the puffer devices delayed the plan for so long that the TSA finally decided to ship them elsewhere.
One day, I learn that a baggage screener at the airport has been fired. Apparently eager to go on break, he cleared a suitcase to be loaded onto a plane even though it had set off an alarm that was never resolved—a clear breach of security.
Of all the factors that motivate screeners to stay on their game—the need to pass annual recertification tests, quarterly spot checks, and occasional encounters with covert testers—the fear of causing a breach is the most serious. You can be fired summarily. A whole terminal can be shut down; it can cost the airlines millions of dollars. The really frightening thing—and a pressure all screeners labor under—is that a split-second distraction is all it takes to lose your job, or worse. Two years ago, there were about a hundred breaches at airports around the country, but the total number of lapses—most of which don’t result in a shutdown—is estimated to be far greater. Fortunately, few if any are ever determined to have been a real threat to security; most fall into the category of dumb mistakes.
A week into the job, I come close to committing a serious blunder. The checkpoint lane where I am guarding the walk-through metal detector suddenly swarms with passengers after two flights in another terminal are canceled and passengers are rerouted. People push and jostle as they approach the walk-through portal. Three passengers have been selected for additional screening, but I can’t abandon my post and no one else seems to be available to help them. One of the selected passengers tries to leave the pen, and as I turn to tell him to stop, two people hurry through the metal detector. I don’t notice that one has set off the alarm. Charles, the supervisor on duty that day, looms up in front of me, his face contorted in fury. “Did you see that!” No, I confess sheepishly. I start to mumble something about not having enough help, and he quickly stops me. “That was a breach. You know what that means.” Fortunately, the man who dashed through the metal detector is still standing there, and I, duly chastened, order him back through the portal after he relinquishes the cell phone that set off the alarm.
Unnerved, I continue at my post. I’ve been told that I’m too nice, that I’m not assertive enough. Suddenly, I hear myself screaming in a voice I hardly recognize as my own: “One at a time!”
By my second week, I get some components of my uniform, and I immediately notice the difference in how I’m treated. I detect a certain deference from the pilots and businessmen who condescended to me before, and my co-workers kid me, “You’re one of us now.”
But as the weeks roll on, I begin to feel like “one of them” in other ways: Burnout is already setting in. It is not just the early-morning hours that I’ve drawn as a shift; it’s the relentless pressure from both TSA management—which seems to be perceived as a distant bully—and the public. The occasional flare-ups from hostile passengers are a reminder that four years after the TSA formally took over the checkpoints, screeners get barely more respect than the poorly trained minimum-wage workers they replaced.
And I am starting to notice the wavering morale that, along with job turnover, is a persistent problem. Allen, one of the younger males on my shift, is going to college in the afternoons. He throws me off guard one day when he asks me point-blank: “So, you’ve been here long enough: Can I ask how you like it?” I’m flummoxed and blurt out, “No comment,” to which he laughs and says, “Yeah, join the club.” The standard and sarcastic response muttered whenever I ask about a machine that’s out of order or a procedure that’s unclear is, “Welcome to the TSA.” I’ve become sensitive to, and discouraged by, the way screeners are depicted in the media: Most of the reports are about screeners missing weapons, stealing from bags, or manhandling eighty-year-old grannies. If there are positive accounts—other than in TSA press releases—I don’t see them. Yet from what I can see, my co-workers are pros, expert at spotting prohibited items with regularity: Lighters, razor blades, and Swiss Army knives all end up in our trove of confiscated items. In fact, two of the screeners in our terminal have become local heroes for having apprehended a TSA Red Team member who had a weapon taped to his body. Most are also adept at defusing customer outrage, although everyone has a story about being pushed to the edge by a passenger who threw something at him or accused him of theft.
Many of my colleagues were hired when the TSA was created four years ago and have had to survive a series of staff cutbacks and repeated tests of their skills. Every year, I’m told, a few screeners at each terminal lose their jobs after failing these reviews.
The regulars on my shift defy easy categorization: two are former prison guards, one had worked as a private investigator for a divorce lawyer, another logged years as a legal secretary at a well-known corporate law firm. Many of them have attended college. When I probe a bit into their motives for staying, it seems many were drawn by the appeal of working for the new agency, especially in those first months after the terror attacks; now that they are within the secure confines of the federal government, with its generous benefits and pensions, it’s hard to leave.
Not surprisingly, of the forty or so of us on the early shift at the terminal, some are less diligent than others. Craig, who just joined our ranks a few months ago, is calling in sick with suspicious regularity, and the gossip is that he’s not long for the TSA. But when he is on duty, I notice that he has a sharp eye and an ingratiating way with passengers. Overall, I’m impressed with the competence of my colleagues.
Our airport is still so understaffed that security can only be maintained with generous outlays for overtime, which boosts the minimum hourly pay to twenty-one dollars and allows some screeners to raise their annual pay by as much as fifteen thousand dollars. Even so, many on the shift have second jobs. To earn enough money to put his children through college, one screener routinely works more than ninety hours a week at the terminal: When he goes off duty at the checkpoint, he changes uniforms and moonlights for one of the private security companies that still perform some routine jobs for the airlines.
It is just past five on a sunday morning. An Amazonian woman with a Teutonic accent wobbles toward me on four-inch stilettos. At first she won’t remove them, but when she sets off the alarm, she contorts herself into an exaggerated spread-eagle position and starts giggling uncontrollably. There’s a strong whiff of alcohol. It seems that many passengers, at this hour, are still up from the night before.
I also get a lot of oddball comments. “Hey, you guys really get off on this, don’t you?” a muscled young man, clad in regulation black, cracks as I paw through his carry-on and extract a jar of hair pomade that has run afoul of the three-ounce limit. Others kid me as I frisk them: “I’m getting a free massage!”
Close physical contact with total strangers is the most difficult part of a screener’s day, and how we deal with it speaks to the “customer service” side of our jobs. The TSA must strike a delicate balance, thoroughly screening passengers but not going so far as to make them frustrated or uncomfortable, lest public support evaporate and the budget be further slashed.
Maintaining this balance—and our composure—can be trying. We’re routinely accused of stealing or breaking someone’s cell phone, computer, camera, or expensive tech toy. The most difficult types of passengers fit into fairly neat categories and seem to appear at fairly neat intervals. First thing in the morning sees the arrival of the self-important business travelers and what I call “the insiders” (flight crews and some airport employees). Whether they are reserved or obnoxious, members of these groups are always impatient. Next are “the passengers from hell,” who either come roaring back after reclaiming their belongings, convinced that they’ve been robbed, or angrily yell things like “You broke my laptop!” or “You’re making me miss my flight!” Later in the morning, the level of civility rises as the level of sophistication drops: The crowds seem to be dominated by infrequent fliers, struggling with shopping bags full of tchotchkes and confusion over even the most basic security rules.
Just as there are people we’d rather not have to deal with, there is stuff we’d rather not see. I am spared such encounters, but one of my more experienced co-workers recounts incidents of cockroaches jumping out of bags and of dead fish (“at least you hope they’re dead”) and rotten meat stuffed into carry-ons. She also describes how another colleague ended up screening a dead man. “It’s true,” she tells me. “The man was in a wheelchair, and I guess he died on line at the checkpoint. She gave him the whole wanding and pat-down. I suppose she figured he was asleep.”
We joke among ourselves about the stresses of dealing with people’s eccentricities, but underneath the humor is a serious question that is not being addressed: What are we doing to better separate the true threats from the rest of this mass of humanity? In my two months on the job, no one ever mentions the Israeli behavioral profiling program announced with great fanfare by the TSA last year and currently in use at a dozen U.S. airports.
One urban legend that is quickly debunked during my tenure is the notion, often reported as fact, that the work—particularly manning the X-ray machine—is so tedious that screeners actually nod off on duty. In fact, we rotate frequently among the various duties and are too busy to doze, even though some of us have been up since 2 a.m. Breaks come regularly—once every two or three hours—and can last up to half an hour.
In fact, despite the common perception that X-ray detail is boring and repetitive, I find it far more palatable than poking and prodding elderly people in their wheelchairs. As a trainee, I am not permitted to monitor the machine unattended, even though I had hours of practice in class. When the line slows, I get a crack at it with a seasoned screener at my side and quickly learn how to spot a lighter, the most common of the prohibited items we see (at least a dozen are collected by the end of each shift). We’re also on our toes to spot images of dangerous items that the TSA briefly superimposes onto the contents of bags to catch us if we let down our guard.
In my third week, we get the news that the TSA is about to start “random” screening of airport workers, who until now have been able to access secure areas without scrutiny. Several of my co-workers mutter, “It’s about time.” We, after all, have to go through screening every time we enter the checkpoint, but an estimated 600,000 workers at U.S. airports with access to secure zones do not have to submit to screening. The absurdity of this is underlined by reports that one of the suspects in the thwarted terror attack in the United Kingdom had a job at Heathrow which allowed him to enter restricted areas. I note that the announcement makes no mention of the fact that the TSA was supposed to have rolled out a system of biometric identification for airport workers several years ago.
By the end of October, I’ve begun to recognize regular passengers: Several business travelers who fly with clocklike regularity at certain times of the week start kidding me about looking forward to the requisite groping that comes with their seemingly perpetual selection for secondary screening. “Shouldn’t there be a card for someone like me?” asks one woman. I tell her to look out for the much-delayed “registered traveler” plan, although whenever I bring it up at the checkpoint, there seems to be general pessimism about its prospects. I also recall what Congressman John Mica, a vocal critic of the TSA, has often observed: “We are spending all our resources checking the same people over and over again.”
And we screeners are instructed to resolutely resist any urges to give special treatment to VIPs. One day, I spot a nicely dressed man who is approaching with the assurance of a seasoned business traveler. I note that he has placed a Defense Department I.D. in the bin, along with his regulation zip-top plastic bag.
When Marsha, the X-ray operator, beckons to me and indicates that she’d like me to go through his gear, I proudly tell her I’ve figured out that he works at the Pentagon, hoping this will get me off the hook.
“So?” she barks. “He’s got a boarding pass just like anyone else. Check his stuff!”
Under the watchful gaze of the X-ray screener, the supervisor, and now Mr. Military Man, I gingerly pluck his plastic bag from the bin, somehow causing green mouthwash to drip all over the conveyor belt and the floor. I sheepishly offer to get him a new bag.
“No,” he says, with a cold stare. “Just clean it up.”
The reason the TSA—and my supervisors—give for searching this man is what I will come to call the “you never know” argument. As in you never know if an elderly person in a wheelchair is a dupe for a saboteur. Of course, it’s important to keep the extra screening as random as possible to avoid any patterns that a terrorist could exploit. But clearly, unless you believe that The Manchurian Candidate presents a plausible scenario, there are people who could safely be exempted without compromising security.
One day I recognize one of the passengers in line as Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and presidential candidate who, it is widely known, lost part of his leg in the Vietnam War. When I try to point him out to a fellow screener who’s manning the next lane, she says, “Where’s John Kerry?” and tries vainly to spot the better-known Massachusetts senator amid the crowd. When Bob Kerrey sets off the metal detector, he is shunted off to the pen. Eventually, a male screener shows up to escort him for additional screening: He is wanded and patted down, and his shoes and prosthesis are tested for explosives.
As it happened, this was to be my last celebrity experience on the job. At the end of my shift, I walk to the operations center and formally resign. My short but enlightening career with the TSA is over.
I had hoped that stepping into a job on the other side of the metal detector would provide me with insights impossible to gain any other way. It did. Above all, I was left to conclude that the screeners have become the scapegoats for failures throughout the system.
Shortly after I resigned, I attended, as a journalist, a TSA media briefing on the new campaign to reduce confusion over the liquids rules. The TSA officials at the event proclaimed that all was well and passengers were “getting it,” and glossed over the confusion and inefficiency that I had experienced on a daily basis. Within days, a former colleague at the checkpoint called to tell me that a passenger had attacked another of my old co-workers: Apparently fed up with the checkpoint protocol, the woman threw her shoes, which landed in the screener’s face like two fastballs. Although questioned by police, the passenger was ultimately released; the airline even delayed the flight for her as a courtesy.
This incident perfectly illustrates how the abuse and hostility that screeners face every day, combined with lack of support from the TSA and law enforcement, leads to flagging morale and perhaps even poor performance. Part of the problem stems from the fact that screeners are beholden to three masters: the TSA, the public, and—unknown to most passengers—the airlines, which still manage the pre-screening process and, at many airports, control the entrance to the checkpoint where I.D.s are scrutinized. The airlines’ presence is also felt elsewhere: Screeners I met who scan checked bags for explosives often complained to me about pressure from airline managers to rush bags onto the plane to avoid delays. As one screener on my old shift put it: “People don’t understand that we’re getting it from all sides—the TSA management, the airlines, and the public, who see that they can abuse us and get away with it.” Lack of support from superiors also undermines screeners’ morale, but given the fact that the TSA has had four chiefs in almost as many years, the superiors may have morale issues of their own.
And what of the notion that screeners are incompetent—an idea fueled with distressing regularity by leaked reports about TSA personnel missing contraband carried by undercover testers? According to Cathleen Berrick, director of homeland security for the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, the truth is that these tests are far more difficult than those given to screeners before 9/11. The high failure rate is also due in large part to understaffing and the outdated equipment many screeners are forced to work with.
Gale Rossides, a senior TSA official who helped start the screener hiring and training program right after 9/11, concedes that morale is a problem and holds the media partly responsible. “We need to get the word out,” she says, “to talk about the heroes.” But she also acknowledges that congressional budget cuts are hampering the TSA in crucial ways, including forcing the agency to turn the job of document checker over to the airlines at many larger facilities. The TSA should take over this position, she says, because “it would close a vulnerability if you had a screener trained in behavior detection who could converse with passengers while examining their travel documents. It would give us an added layer of security, an extra set of eyes.”
That approach might go a long way toward altering the dim view many experts have of the present setup. “Our checkpoints are designed to catch the sloppy and the stupid,” says technology consultant Bruce Schneier. Real terrorists, he contends, are too patient and clever to be caught by such artless routines as a liquids ban. Whether or not Schneier is correct, it’s hard to argue with his assertion that the ultimate solution will be found in technology such as the sophisticated 3-D X-ray machines and explosives sniffers that are in place at only a handful of airports. These will take some of the pressure off TSA employees and will vastly improve the accuracy of the screening process.
My time as a screener also highlighted the urgent need to reduce the number of passengers deemed a threat. For years, the TSA has been promising to come up with a more intelligent way to identify those who merit secondary screening—but the no-fly and watch lists remain scandalously out of date. (I personally encountered fliers who have the same very common name as someone on the watch list and who are selected for additional screening every time they fly.) The private-sector registered-traveler program that was expanded late last year may be a start. And since it’s voluntary, it has excited less outrage from civil rights groups than the more sweeping proposal to pre-screen all fliers. In charging people a hundred dollars for the right to submit to a background check that allows them to speed through security with a biometric I.D., the program is rightfully criticized as elitist.
Simply creating this privileged class of traveler, however, might fire up the rest of the flying public: As they struggle out of their shoes and coats, they would see that the technology exists to make the process far more efficient but that the government is not willing to pay for it. Maybe then the blame can start to shift from the screeners to Congress, where it belongs.
As technology begins to solve the current problems, just how essential to aviation security will TSA personnel ultimately be? Very—just not as much at the checkpoint as they are today. Schneier and fellow critics make the eminently sensible argument that if we were to divert just a small fraction of the TSA’s four-billion-dollar annual budget into intelligence gathering and basic gumshoe work (as the Israelis and many Western European nations do), we’d be far better off.
The good news is that it’s already beginning to happen. In late January, I learned that one of my supervisors, a former police officer, had been chosen to be part of a crack unit of newly minted “behavior-detection officers,” who will patrol airport concourses and lobbies to look for suspicious people rather than suspicious things. This, in essence, is the kind of old-fashioned detective work that snared the would-be London bombers last August. It works. I hope it will soon be part of a smarter aviation security system for U.S. air travelers, who deserve it every bit as much.
Ways to Speed Through Security Checkpoints
DON’T tell a screener that you are about to miss your flight (it won’t win you any sympathy and could even arouse suspicion).
DON’T wear clothing with metallic objects such as buckles.
DON’T wear lots of jewelry or hairpins that can’t be easily removed.
DON’T say you “forgot” you have liquids in your bag.
DON’T try to jam everything into one bin in a misguided effort to be helpful—it’s much harder to screen.
DON’T accuse screeners of theft: Once you’re certain an item is missing, speak to a supervisor.
DON’T tell screeners “it only comes in this size” or “it’s almost empty” when asked to surrender containers of liquid larger than three ounces.
DON’T tell them how much you spent on the toiletries—it won’t make any difference if they’re the wrong size.
DON’T block traffic by repacking your belongings on the conveyor belt.
DO wear easily removable shoes.
DO keep your boarding pass in hand.
DO take the plastic bag holding liquids out of your carry-on before putting it through the X-ray machine.
DO lay your bag on its side (the upright position is much harder to “read” and may trigger a rescreening).
DO put items through the X-ray machine only when you are ready to walk through the metal detector. This minimizes the time you’re separated from your belongings.
DO make sure that you have all items before you leave the checkpoint.