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Airport Screeners
Control Over Security Debated

listen Listen to Mary Ann Akers' report on airport screening.

Oct. 5, 2001 -- They are on the front lines of anti-terrorism efforts -- never has that been more clear than in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But in many cases airport security screeners are treated little better than the employees at fast-food counters a short stroll down the concourse.

A traveler's baggage gets searched at Reagan National Airport

A traveler's baggage gets searched at Reagan National Airport.
Photo: Reuters/Win McNamee

The starting pay for the screeners is in some cases just $6.25 per hour, just above minimum wage. Their job is repetitive and boring: standing for hours on end manning X-ray machines and checking airline passengers and their baggage for weapons and contraband. In addition, government audits have found, the security personnel often receive inadequate training for their important task.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the turnover rate for airport screeners is 100 percent or more per year, according to the General Accounting Office. The GAO says that at least 90 percent of all screeners have less than 6 months' experience.

Airport Screening
Staff Turnover

(May 1998-April 1999)

Airport Percent
Atlanta 375
Baltimore 155
Boston 207
Chicago (O'Hare) 200
Dallas-Ft. Worth 156
Denver 193
Detroit 79
Honolulu 37
Houston 237
Los Angeles 88
Miami 64
New York (JFK) 53
Orlando 100
San Francisco 110
San Juan 70
Seattle 140
St. Louis 416
Wash. (Dulles) 90
Wash. (National) 47
Avg turnover 126

Sources: Federal Aviation Administration, General Accounting Office

At the root of the problem is control of the system. The Federal Aviation Administration currently regulates airport screening. But the security personnel work for the airlines and subcontractors, who are often hired based on the lowest bid.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush agreed to work with Congress to put the federal government in charge. The White House and Congress have haggled over just how to do that and at what price. One estimate put the annual cost of 28,000 airport security workers at over $1 billion.

Under a Senate bill, screeners at the 142 largest U.S. airports would be federal workers; local police would handle the work at smaller airports. Under a competing proposal by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, federal oversight of airport security would continue but screeners would not be direct federal employees.

Public interest groups have warned against allowing the FAA to take over because of its close relationship with the airlines. The FAA "bows repeatedly to airline industry pressure and has a history of diluting or delaying security-boosting rules after industry complaints," Public Citizen says.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general, Kenneth Mead, urged in testimony to Congress on Sept. 25 that the job be given to a federal entity with security as its primary mission.

"Under the current system, those charged with aviation security oversight and regulation (FAA) and those charged with providing security (the airlines and airports) are themselves facing other priorities, missions, and in some cases, competing economic pressures," Mead said.

Whatever is agreed upon, it will take several months to implement the new proposal. In the meantime, the old system -- or a modified version -- will stay in place.

NPR Coverage

audio Listen to NPR's Peter Overby report about the fingerpointing between the government and the airline industry over delays in certification of companies to screen airline passengers. Sept. 30, 2001.

audio Listen to NPR's Don Gonyea report about President Bush promising federal oversight of passenger and baggage screening, stronger cockpit doors and armed U.S. air marshals aboard commercial flights. Sept. 27, 2001.

audio Listen to All Things Considered host Noah Adams interview Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, about moves to put airport security under federal control. Sept. 25, 2001.

audio Listen to a WBUR report on long-standing concerns about security at Boston's Logan Airport -- the takeoff point for the hijacked airliners that smashed into the World Trade Center. Sept. 22, 2001.

audio Listen to NPR's Larry Abramson report on the slow pace of efforts to reform airport security. Sept. 20, 2001.

audio Listen to NPR's John McChesney report on difficulties lawmakers have faced in trying to strengthen airport security over the past several years. Sept. 19, 2001.

audio Listen as Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with Brian Michael Jenkins, founder of the Rand terrorism research program, about the security of American airports. Sept. 15, 2001.

audio Listen as All Things Considered host Noah Adams talks about airline security with Brian Michael Jenkins, founder of the Rand terrorism research program. Sept. 12, 2001.

Other Resources

Details of President Bush's Sept. 27, 2001, announcement on steps to improve airport and airline security

Text of the Senate's aviation security bill, S. 1447

Text of Sept. 25, 2001, Senate testimony of the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General on the need to improve aviation security

Reports on airport and aviation security from the General Accounting Office and the DOT Inspector General

DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead's statement to Congress on actions needed to improve aviation security, delivered Sept. 25, 2001

Air Transport Association statement calling for federalization of airport security, delivered to the House Transportation Committee on Sept. 25, 2001

Final report of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security (the Gore Commission), issued Feb. 12, 1997

Department of Transportation

Federal Aviation Administration

Public Citizen Oct. 3, 2001, report criticizing aviation security