Are Educated Screeners Too Much To Ask?

The $6-per-hour airport security screener, arguably the main reason cited for the federalization of our nation’s airport security, is about to rise like the mythical Phoenix from the ashes of 911. Disguised as federal officers, they will become our first line of defense against aviation terrorism. Citing the fear that too many of the existing airport screeners, all of whom are now employed by the private sector, will not be eligible for employment in the new government workforce of 28 thousand airport screeners because they don’t have a high school education, the Department of Transportation has announced that the high school diploma requirement will be waived in place of one year’s relevant work experience.

The DOT’s plan is to convert the existing workforce into federal civil servants so that they continue to do the job that every test of the system has demonstrated they are not competent to do, By these actions, the DOT once again makes a strong argument for the transfer of federal security responsibility to the Department of Justice or the Office of Homeland Security, even before its new Transportation Security Administration is up and running.

Clearly, the DOT is not happy with the new legislation signed by President Bush on November 19th, 2001, finding these stricter security requirements too stringent for its enforcement capabilities. Within days of the enactment of the new law, Secretary Mineta weighed in on the side of the airline industry on the question of PPBM (positive passenger bag match). Then the Secretary complained that instituting the requirement that all checked baggage be examined before loading within 60 days of the bill’s passage was too ambitious. Now, he has decided that the notion that a first-class security screening force for our airports requires personnel with a high school education is also too severe a qualification (especially for those who will be using more sophisticated technology and procedures to screen more sophisticated criminals and terrorists). One wonders why Congress bothers to writes laws at all if it is going to allow administrative agencies to either re-write them through the rule-making process, or just flat out ignore them.

The airline industry has long complained that matching bags with passengers was too time-consuming on domestic flights, and really isn’t necessary, since suicide bombers will not be deterred by the notion of going down with the plane. Following their lead, the DOT joined the bandwagon.

But now we have the ability to screen baggage for the most sophisticated kinds of bombs, and even though not every bag will be examined (due to the current shortage of equipment), terrorists will not know which will be examined as a result of random searches and computer assisted profiling of passengers. PPBM forces all passengers to board with all checked baggage. As a result, checking a bomb could result in being apprehended — a deterrent even for suicide bombers, who would rather die than spend the rest of their lives in prison.

The DOT’s argument that it cannot institute the process of checking all bags before loading within 60 days of the law’s passage is similarly without grounds. The law allows for up to one year to have all bags checked by EDS (explosive detection equipment), and allows for the use of PPBM or manual baggage searches in the interim. Since baggage checking is a sophisticated computerized process, as is the process of passenger boarding, the time required for implementation under the new law is not unreasonable. The matching job has been taken over by computers, which can quickly identify if a bag is loaded without its owner and where it has been stored, thus facilitating quick removal when necessary.

Now the DOT intends to avoid the educational requirement for screeners. Once again, it seems to find itself unable to implement Congressional intent as expressed to the American people in the promise of a first-rate airport security system. The DOT’s plan to waive the high school education requirement waters down the cornerstone of the new program. A high school level education is not too much to ask of skilled screeners, who should be: able to read and understand written directions; able to successfully undergo sophisticated training in necessary security techniques, including the use of sophisticated technology; able to communicate clearly and fully understand the English language; able to write necessary reports clearly; and able to satisfy the responsibilities expected of individuals in whom law enforcement authority will be vested. Surely, when members of Congress argued that, since the government didn’t farm out the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Border Patrol to private companies, and so we shouldn’t do it for our airport security force, they weren’t suggesting that we substitute federal law enforcement officers with less than a high school-level education.

The most disturbing element of the DOT’s latest proposal is not the that the work force may contain some individuals without high school or GED diplomas — it is the DOT’s stated purpose of opening a pathway for the least educated in the current work force to become part of the new work force. Baggage screeners have come under fire for poor performance for years. The defense offered for their inability to consistently detect weapons and explosives that routinely passed through their screening stations has been that they are under-paid. Their current employers claim that the salaries they are forced to pay because of low bidder contract awards by airlines results in their attracting the lowest level of available workers.

It is precisely that lack of education that causes these employees to have to take low-paying jobs. It is their lack of education that causes them to be unable follow instructions. It is their lack of education that renders them unable to communicate with passengers. And it is lack of education that results in their repeated failure to pass required examinations. Waiving the educational requirement in favor of one year’s experience is to establish as a standard of performance that which has been rejected by the Congress, rejected by the traveling public, and repeatedly repudiated by the FAA, which has consistently complained of the unacceptably poor performance of the current screening force. Recycling defective workers, and giving them more money and civil service protection, will not make them skilled screeners, just more expensive ones.

In those instances where minimum educational requirements are waived for employment in the public and private sectors, the intent is not to lower the standards for the job. The DOT’s position that one year of screening at an airport is equal to a high school education stretches credulity. Federalized screeners in the future will be required to operate at a level much higher than that which exists today at screening stations in our airports; the new law anticipates enhanced security. If that does not become the case, then liability for negligent security will surely be an issue in the future. It is to be expected that these new deputized federal officers will not only need to know how to operate x-ray and metal detection equipment, but also will need to be able to understand biometrics, computer-assisted profiling, interrogation techniques, weapons and explosives identification, and a host of new regulations, which they will be required to enforce quickly and accurately while employing maturity and judgment not now evident at our aviation facilities.

In the new airport security environment, all who participate will be held accountable for their performance. Screening, as defined in the future, will not be a job for just anybody who shows up with his or her eyes open. Screening in airports will no longer be done in a land of the blind where a one-eyed screener is king.

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