Thursday, May 1, 2003

Airport security screeners to be cut

Travelers might face long lines

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HEBRON - The security screening force at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is shrinking by 26 percent, federal officials said Wednesday. The job cuts raise questions about security and the return of long lines at airport checkpoints.

The cuts are part of a 10.7 percent reduction nationwide in the number of screeners employed by the Transportation Security Administration, the agency created shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to handle airport security.

"There are still a lot of people out there who hate America, so we need to be careful that we're not letting our guard down," said David Stempler, president of the Washington-based advocacy group the Air Travelers Association. "But there is more layering to security now ... and perhaps in the rush to get this thing running, the TSA overstaffed and we do need to get more efficient.

"It will be a fine line that will have to be watched closely, because the last thing the airlines need right now is a return to long lines."

Nationwide, the agency currently employs 55,600 screeners, including some who are either working part time or on a temporary basis. Congress set a cap of 45,000 permanent full-time screeners, and the security agency said the cuts would drop its work force to 49,600 by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The agency now employs 487 workers at the airport, down from 550-plus initially. Under the new plan, 128 positions would be cut.

Those reductions will begin immediately, with 3,000 jobs to be cut nationally by May 31 and another 3,000 jobs to be slashed by Sept. 30.

Agency spokesman Brian Turmail cited a drop in airline traffic nationwide, as well as Congress' headcount mandate, as among the reasons for the job cuts.

Congress also recently gave the airlines $2.3 billion in aid, which includes the temporary rescinding of the $2.50 per segment security fee that helps fund the TSA. Those airlines had also complained about long lines keeping travelers away in the immediate days after Sept. 11 and during the startup of the security agency.

"We will make sure that the work force changes do not impact security, and we'll still be vigilant on that," Turmail said. "And as for service, we will be using scheduling aggressively to make sure staffing levels are appropriate at appropriate times. We'll be watching that very closely, and we should not see that much of an impact on wait times."

Cincinnati's reduction was not as large as some major airports face - Atlanta is losing 263 positions, and Dallas will be out 256. Salt Lake City, where security had been beefed up for the 2002 Winter Olympics, will lose 385.

But the local airport is taking one of the largest percentage hits. Turmail said figures at every airport were derived after a national staffing survey, which considered air traffic patterns, the total number of security lanes, whether the airport was deploying electronic bag screening, as well as the needs of the agency nationally.

As of Feb. 14, the TSA screens 100 percent of checked luggage with electronic scanning machines. The airport operates one lane in both Terminals 1 and 2, and 6 lanes in Terminal 3.

Turmail said reductions throughout the system would be made in a variety of ways, including:

• Attrition. The agency loses about 700 workers a month normally on a nationwide basis, Turmail said.

• Moving full-time workers to part-time, especially since most airports have slow and busy times.

• Moving workers from airports where cuts have been ordered to airports that will get more screeners. The agency will offer qualified screeners $5,000 to move from one airport to another, Turmail said.

• Accelerating the discipline process, and getting rid of a backlog of cases.

• Layoffs.

Turmail said he did not know how many employees would actually be put out of work either nationally or locally, or how many would move to other airports.

One airline expert said the cuts don't go deep enough.

"They should be cutting 15 percent, because every airport we work with says that the TSA is overstaffed," said Michael Boyd, president of Evergreen, Colo.-based The Boyd Group, which advises about 15 airports nationally. "Even during busy times, you can always see so many of those white shirts standing around doing nothing.

"This won't affect security or wait times. If anything, it provides some financial accountability to the agency, which has had none."


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