The nation's 45,000 federal airport-security screeners suffer from low morale, understaffing and excessive overtime, according to a new report by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.
The report, released yesterday, comes as the agency said it faces a 22 percent attrition rate, compared with 15 percent last year. Before the federal government took over the screener workforce, private companies that ran security checkpoints typically incurred staff turnover of 100 percent a year.
The report focused on working conditions among screeners employed by private companies under an experimental program at five airports.
Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin said his report did not find many differences between the federal workers and those employed by private companies. In an earlier report, he said the performance of both groups of workers was "equally poor" in detecting weapons hidden by inspectors at the security checkpoints. The same was true of the workers' level of training, supervision and job satisfaction, Ervin said yesterday. "There really was no difference."
Ervin's report details a Transportation Security Administration bureaucracy that seemed unresponsive to local airport directors who pleaded at times to hire and train more security screeners. The agency sent out software to train screeners how to detect weapons inside luggage. Screeners learned to recognize fake weapons in baggage, but the software was not updated to test them with new images.
"As a result, screeners eventually memorized the threat images, rendering the training software ineffective," the report says. The report was released a month before airport directors will be allowed to choose to return to a private screener workforce.
TSA spokesman Mark O. Hatfield Jr. said the agency has since changed the way it manages the screeners, and airports now have the ability to hire and train local people instead of awaiting direction from headquarters. The management difficulties described in the report were "part of the nature of how the agency was organized at that time," Hatfield said.
Hatfield attributed the higher attrition rates in part to the overtime that screeners were asked to work this summer as passengers returned to flying in numbers not seen since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "It makes sense because we've had a long, tough summer," Hatfield said.