Federal Diary

For airport screeners, friction on the front lines

An airline passenger undergoes a full body scan at O'Hare Airport.
An airline passenger undergoes a full body scan at O'Hare Airport. (Charles Rex Arbogast)
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By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010

John Pistole likes to talk about how employees in the Transportation Security Administration he heads are on the front lines of airline safety.

A transportation security officer, one of the front-liners who screen passengers and baggage, at Indianapolis International Airport can testify to that, and he may have to.

The TSO, identified in a police report as Gregory Joseph Hutman, was punched in the chest Tuesday by a passenger, John A. Christina, who had just gone through a body imaging machine.

Christina said he was kidding with Hutman after the TSO couldn't answer a question about screening. Jokes like that aren't tolerated at airports. Christina was arrested.

Joke or not, the incident highlights the controversy surrounding the increased screening procedures now in place at airports and the difficult position screeners can find themselves in as a result.

Some passengers object not only to the body imaging but also to the pat-downs that can be part of the process.

Pistole called the new procedures "thorough" and "clearly more invasive" than previous security checks.

While he took direct, but polite, questions and criticism from members of the Senate Commerce Committee about the procedures Wednesday, it is the TSOs who suffer less genteel reactions from those trying to get to their planes.

"With our jobs, we get complaints every day," said Ricky McCoy, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 777. He is a lead TSO at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

Yet, despite those complaints and all the talk about invasion of privacy, most passengers seem to be coping just fine, according to the screening officers. "We've had a lot of passengers who come through who are in support of what we do and they feel much safer," said Aubrey Williams, president of AFGE Local 555 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. "I think it really is a select few who are raising concern."

McCoy and Williams also praised Pistole for assuring officers, in a video message, of the agency's support as long as they implement the procedures properly.

"It did a lot for our confidence," McCoy said, "a whole lot."

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