For airport screeners, friction on the front lines

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; B03

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."

Pistole told the committee that TSOs are fully trained on the new screening machines and procedures.

He expects "them to act professionally at all times and to treat all passengers with dignity and respect," Pistole said in his testimony. "Similarly, I ask all passengers to remember that our officers are going to keep you safe and they need your cooperation to do so. Security is a shared responsibility. During the holiday travel season, we need at all times the cooperation between TSA and the traveling public."

AFGE urged the TSA to provide an educational pamphlet to each passenger, explaining the new procedures and passenger rights.

At the same time, training for TSOs needs improvement, according to a report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general.

The inspector general's office said its recommendations, "if implemented, would improve the agency's management of its screening workforce training program."

The recommendations include better training documentation, creation of formal on-the-job training, use of equipment in training classrooms that is similar to equipment used at checkpoints and in checked baggage areas, and a study on the time needed for TSOs to complete required training.

The inspector general's report found that the TSA "may not always provide TSOs with the equipment and support they need to effectively complete required training."

It also said: "TSA does not ensure that TSOs are provided the time they need to effectively complete training requirements," and "the agency has not articulated a standard methodology to keep its training material current and relevant."

The study, completed in October, was released Tuesday by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

"In light of recent aviation security events and the new pat-down process for screening passengers, training is more important than ever in both securing the aviation system and maintaining suitable privacy and customer service standards," he said. "Training is the critical linchpin in an effective aviation security program. Without suitable training, technology and established screening processes are ineffective."

Although most of the hearing focused on screening procedures, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (Tex.), the top Republican on the committee, couldn't pass up the opportunity to warn Pistole about trouble ahead if he decides to grant TSOs collective- bargaining rights.

He has promised a decision on that soon. It's all the more pertinent in light of Friday's decision by the Federal Labor Relations Authority to allow screeners a vote on union representation.

"If you decide to . . . allow for collective bargaining among the TSA workforce, there would be an upheaval in Congress and serious efforts to prevent that from happening," she said in a statement prepared for the hearing.

"I don't think that's a fight we want right now," she added.

No one wants that fight, certainly not TSOs represented by AFGE and the National Treasury Employees Union. But if members of Congress do try to block a decision to grant collective-bargaining rights, a fight there certainly will be.

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this column.

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