Sunday, November 17, 2002

Bag screeners put on a happy face



By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Stephen Holderness - a frequent flier at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport - rarely got an explanation of the newly rigorous screening process. A smile was even rarer here or at any of the other airports to which he traveled.

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Sara Ducker and Thomas Gibson are Transportation Security Administration agents at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
But now that the Transportation Security Administration, which turns a year old Tuesday, has put fully trained screeners in place, he says things are totally different. And the agency's done it, he and other frequent travelers say, with nothing more than being polite and thorough.

"It's like I'm dealing with someone who is committed to their job, especially when they go down the list and ask `can I do this' or `can I do that?'" says Mr. Holderness, the Florence-based international sales manager for Aristech Acrylics who flies at least once a week, and many times more often than that. "When they are friendly, it not only makes me feel like they want to be there, it makes me feel like they know what they're doing."

This is the response the TSA is hoping for in its effort to remake its image and how it deals with all those most concerned about airline security - whether they be passengers, the officials running the airports or airline executives with billions of dollars at stake.

Yet not everyone is sold on the agency's new image. Some security experts, including the former chief of security at Israel's El Al Airlines, says the TSA is spending too much time on customer service and not enough time on security.

"It's a joke, just window dressing," says Juval Aviv, the former El Al official who now runs Interfor Inc., a private security firm in New York. "It's not like being half pregnant. You have to devote all your time looking for the bad guys."

Still, the new approach - including dropping the three questions once asked of passengers, allowing travelers to carry drinks through security checkpoints and a continuing study of whether to drop screening at gates - generally has won public approval.

The agency "was clearly headed down the wrong road," says Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the industry trade group. Now its officials "are more realistic and practical in their decision making. ... What they do clearly affects us, and we like what we have been seeing."

The TSA started as a maligned agency given little chance of pulling off its mandate of fully federalizing all aspects of airline security.

Then the fledgling branch of the Department of Transportation spent the first six months of its existence suffering through growing pains that alienated everybody involved in the process - especially airlines, which complained the loudest because of the economic impact of tighter security.

Now, the TSA is about to meet its biggest deadline to date, putting federal screeners who are better paid, better educated and better trained than their privately employed predecessors, in the nation's 429 airports, including here. Federal screeners have been on duty at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International since September, even handling random checks at the gate.

In so doing, the agency has not only completed one of the largest peacetime bureaucratic startups in history, it has made walking through a screening checkpoint almost a pleasurable experience, according to several frequent fliers. It also has others involved in the process almost raving about how open the agency has become in such a short time, with an openness that includes interviews with local screeners for the first time.

"We have been in the spotlight squarely from the beginning, and we probably underestimated how much that would remain on us throughout the process," said Stephen J. McHale, the TSA's deputy undersecretary and second in command, Friday. "We could have and should have done a better job communicating with people what we were doing, but we were just not ready.

"But now we are, and we feel there is no reason for security to be rigid and discourteous and gruff. We actually feel that (improved customer service) adds to security, and if we impose a security system that throttles our freedom of movement, we're handing the bin Ladens of the world a victory."

Given what's at stake for the airlines, industry officials welcome the change, especially since executives such as Delta Air Lines chairman Leo Mullin estimate the impact of the "hassle factor" on his carrier alone to be in the range of $650 million.

The cost of people choosing not to fly because of the perception that security will either delay or embarrass them is about $4 billion for the entire industry, according to the Air Transport Association.

"We are very cognizant of the fact that we are in a business environment and that airlines and airports are engaged in a business that we could very easily disrupt," Mr. McHale says.

One sign of the shift: the agency Wednesday unveiled a new information campaign directed at passengers flying during the upcoming holiday season, with the hopes of easing the TSA's first turn at handling security nationwide over the busy holiday travel season.

The agency also plans events over the next two days to continue pushing the public awareness program, as well as commemorating the fact that it has fully federalized the screening work force in time for Tuesday's deadline.

Screening with a smile

In another sign of its openness, the TSA allowed local screeners to be interviewed, after previously keeping them off limits.

"Before, it was like 95 percent of the people were motivated and happy to be here and cared about their jobs," says Sara Ducker, a Florence native who previously worked for the private screening firm Argenbright Inc., locally, but who joined the TSA in March to be a traveling trainer and has settled back here.

"Of course that left the 5 percent you worried about. Now, everyone here is happy to be here, wants to be here and knows the value of this work."

Thomas Gibson Jr., 38, a veteran of the Army, joined the TSA in September and says that customer service has been a part of his training "since day one."

"It puts people at ease, and that helps people feel more secure, and as we've been told, perception is a big part of security," says Mr. Gibson, an Erlanger native who now lives in Elsmere.

Mr. Aviv disagrees with the approach, saying that by being nice to everyone, the agency is missing out on spotting potential trouble.

"You almost want to make them as uncomfortable as possible, but we can't do that, since our civil liberties prevent us from profiling based on ethnicity or race," says Mr. Aviv, who advocates a profiling system and interview system for all passengers that would include such factors as race and nationality.

But Mr. McHale says that by being polite and engaging passengers in a positive way, those who might have something to be nervous about will stand out further.

"Interaction is very important, because if you just stand there by rote, you miss that opportunity," Mr. McHale says. "Any security expert worth their salt says that you need human interaction and that you can't underestimate human intuition that something may be wrong."

Terry Burgess, the TSA's local federal security director, adds: "Imagine all the negative stories if we were really rude to people. If we treated passengers like nothing more than an object, we aren't fully addressing the threat."

Ms. Ducker says that training is much better and security is much tighter under the TSA than it was under private control, although local officials would not comment on how screeners are trained, or whether they are tested by undercover agents, as private screeners were.

A federal test of screeners conducted in June found that local screeners had the highest failure rate of any airport in the country, but that test was of privately employed screeners and not of the federal employees currently on duty.

Ms. Drucker did say she and her fellow screeners have the authority to pull anyone aside for further scrutiny if they have any doubts.

"Of course it's a fine line between being nice and being vigilant, but we think we can be friendly but safe at the same time," says Ms. Drucker, who wants to make a career out of the TSA after recently earning a marketing degree at Northern Kentucky University.

Behind the scenes

That same spirit of engagement apparently has carried to the airports, airlines and even members of Congress who were so critical of the lack of information coming from the agency in its early days.

Airlines say that they now have daily discussions with TSA officials locally and nationally, and can quickly get answers to questions about new initiatives.

"We have local staff to bounce things off of, and the TSA even has a local liaison for the airlines. Before, we understood they were getting their infrastructure standing up, but still, it was hard not having much information to go on," says Ed Hollkamp, manager of security and system operations for Erlanger-based regional airline Comair

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., says that as a frequent flier, he agrees with the customer-friendly approach. He also says that unlike the early days of the agency, there is little criticism of the TSA on Capitol Hill, although the agency is still trying to get its $4.8 billion budget passed for the 2003 fiscal year.

A lot of that has to do with the agency opening up, although much credit has been given to the agency's new head James T. Loy, a former Coast Guard admiral, who took over in July for John Magaw, the former Ohio State Highway patrolman and Secret Service agent who alienated many in Washington in the TSA's early days.

"There just haven't been the complaints about it like there were," Mr. Bunning said.

Joe Weil, the local airport's security coordinator, says that the agency also has become much more responsive.

"It used to be that it would take two weeks to get an answer" Mr. Weil says. "Now, (the local TSA officials) have cell phones and pagers, and they are two steps removed from the top and it takes 10 minutes to get an answer."

Challenges to come

Not that the agency is finished with its challenges. Although Congress is close to giving the TSA more time, the current deadline for electronically scanning all checked bags for bombs is Dec. 31, a deadline that even Mr. McHale says will be tough to meet in some airports.

And the TSA still has to hire its own police force to be on duty at all checkpoints (local law enforcement currently handles the responsibility), wants to improve and expand the current profiling system currently used by airlines to flag suspicious passengers, and is looking to branch out into other areas of transportation.

"We're quite proud of what we have accomplished," Mr. McHale says. "But while we have met every deadline that is out there to date, that is not what is driving us. There is still the ever present threat, and that is what is pushing us to get everything in place and to improve as we go along."

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

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