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This Airport Security Doesn't Fly

Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page B08

I am a security screener at Dulles International Airport.

When I started my job with the Transportation Security Administration in November 2002, I and the other just-hired employees of the newly federalized airport security force believed we would be doing something important in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. Now, some of us aren't so sure.

Although management likes to refer to the screeners as "Team Dulles," in reality many of us believe we are working in a dysfunctional environment. We've come to question the value of what we do. A running joke at the checkpoints in the main terminal at Dulles is, "Guns, bombs and common sense are prohibited by the TSA in the airport."

TSA policies at Dulles often seem to do little more than improve the appearance of security. For example, the agency allows foot-long knitting needles and bottles of wine and liquor to be carried aboard planes, but not scissors for clipping fingernails or nose hair. A broken bourbon bottle can be a lethal weapon. How does a pair of tiny scissors become deadly?

The TSA requires all laptop computers to be removed from their cases and X-rayed separately, but its policy is to allow DVD players and other electronic devices to remain inside suitcases to be X-rayed. Why are laptops categorized as suspect while other electronic devices are not? It wasn't a laptop bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

TSA' s shoe policy also has bounced back and forth between silly extremes. As screeners like to say, "At TSA, consistently we're inconsistent."

In my early days as a passenger screener, for example, we were forbidden to mention the word "shoe" to the flying public.

Now we are to tell passengers that removing their shoes before they walk through the metal detectors is "recommended." We can't tell them to remove their shoes, however. We also can't tell them that if they don't remove their shoes -- even if they are wearing rubber flip-flops -- they will be subject to "continued screening," which means being screened individually with a handheld metal detector.

In fairness to the TSA, the airlines operating out of Dulles share some responsibility for long lines and missed flights. For instance, the airlines continue to use outdated criteria -- such as buying one-way tickets or paying in cash -- to single out passengers for more time-consuming screening. But, surely, terrorists know these practices bring about extra screening, so the only people being screened -- and delayed -- are regular travelers caught in the airlines' obsolete "selection" criteria.

Once these passengers become "selectees," TSA policy requires that screeners inconvenience them further by searching their carry-on luggage even though the bags already have been cleared by the X-ray operators.

Such policies aggravate already frustrated passengers and don't make our skies any safer. They are about as useful as screeners being told to be "extra vigilant" when the threat level is raised. Does that mean that when it is lowered, we can relax?

I have seen six-inch muskets, bought in Williamsburg as souvenirs for children, confiscated because they were replicas of firearms.

I have seen a gavel nearly taken from a circuit judge because it fit the physical description of a hammer.

These examples of overreaction by screeners have been fostered by the TSA's aversion to common sense.

I have voiced my concerns to my superiors. I have written my senators and my congressman. I have even written to the Government Accountability Office. To date, I have received replies from one senator and one member of Congress -- nearly identical letters saying that my concerns will be reviewed by "the appropriate division within TSA." Uh-huh.

Is the TSA doing any good?

Its supporters would say that no jets have been hijacked and turned into missiles since Sept. 11, 2001. For that we all are thankful. But is that because of the TSA or because the day of the box-cutter has passed, with terrorists moving on to other nefarious plots?

The House recently backed a bill to authorize $5.7 billion for the TSA next year, $2 billion of which will be for airline passenger screening. Significantly less -- $1.4 billion -- has been allocated for baggage screening. How wise is this? My experiences as a TSA employee relate to only one airport. Dulles, though, is regarded as a flagship airport, and I suspect that my experiences are mirrored at other airports across the country.

I don't know the answers to the big questions. But what I have seen at Dulles is mismanagement, plunging morale and constantly changing policies and procedures.

Someone with governmental oversight authority needs to take a closer look at the goings-on at the TSA. The security pageant we now put on at Dulles may be more of a charade than anyone wants to admit.

-- Scott Wallace

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