Saturday, March 29, 2003

Airport screener numbers evaluated



By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HEBRON - No decisions have been made about potential cuts to the number of federal passenger screeners at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, its top security official said Friday.

Terry Burgess, the airport's federal security director for the Transportation Security Agency, said the agency employs 490 screeners, down from the 550-plus who were on duty when the airport was fully federalized last October. The head of the TSA told Congress on Thursday that there might be layoffs.

Burgess said he could not say how many local jobs could be lost as the TSA, created soon after the Sept. 11 attacks to oversee aviation security, looks to downsize in the coming months, because a study of the nation's 429 commercial airports is still under way.

"One of my assistants is on the national task force, looking at each airport individually," Burgess said. "Until they come to their final findings, it would be inappropriate for me to say anything about it."

Thursday, TSA chief James T. Loy was told by a key congressional subcommittee that it should consider layoffs as it tries to cut its staff of 56,000 screeners nationally down to 48,000 - which the agency has said it would do by October 2004. Congress originally capped the number of screeners at 45,000, but the TSA went well beyond that. The agency also received about $3.85 billion in the recent budget when it had requested more than $4.4 billion.

Loy said the agency was seeking to cut 3,000 positions as soon as possible. He said layoffs would be a last resort to other means such as attrition, reallocation of workers and moving some employees to part-time duty.

But Loy did say layoff notices could be going out to screeners as soon as Tuesday.

In a letter to all screeners sent Friday, Loy said he faces "some tough decisions about whether we have the right number of screeners to adequately do the job. What has not been reported is my intention to make necessary staff reductions in a way that impacts as few screeners as possible."

He also told screeners that he thinks that measures other than layoffs "will be enough" to cut the 3,000 positions. "However, it is possible other actions will be needed to meet budget requirements," he said in the letter.

Burgess said he has not been told when the final decisions would be made on local staffing.

"We don't know whether we will be given more, have some taken away, or stay where we're at," said Burgess, who would not comment on what he felt adequate staffing levels were.

The local airport is the nation's 21st busiest, but about 70 percent of the approximately 20.4 million passengers who fly through here annually transfer to other flights inside security checkpoints, as it is Delta Air Lines' second-largest hub.

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the homeland security panel, said the TSA had hired too many screeners. Now, he said, it needed to cut back to fulfill its overall goal of looking at all transportation security and not just for aviation.

"You need to take a good hard look at our border and transportation systems," Rogers, of Somerset, told Loy Thursday. "If we have a weakness, it will be found."

The Associated Press contributed to this article. E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com




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