WASHINGTON -- Five Transportation Security Administration workers at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers have been fired and another 38 suspended after an internal investigation found they failed to perform random screenings last year.
The 43, a combination of front-line screeners and supervisors, represent about 15 percent of the roughly 280 TSA employees at the airport. The number of workers involved makes it one of the largest disciplinary actions TSA has taken in its 10-year history, TSA spokesman David Castelveter confirmed.
The workers were notified of their punishment Friday and are being given an opportunity to appeal, he said. The agency has brought in screeners from other airports to fill in.
During a two-month period last year, as many as 400 passengers who underwent routine screening at Southwest Florida International Airport never got additional random checks, Castelveter said. About 3.8 million passengers flew through the airport last year.
Castelveter said TSA officials were alerted by a "fellow employee" at the airport who reported at least one violation during the two-month period. The agency then conducted its own probe and found other violations.
"That investigation just recently concluded, and those employees that were involved in these violations were notified of their (discipline) last Friday," Castelveter said.
Castelveter declined to go into details about security procedures, including how TSA chooses passengers for additional screening. He did not release the names of those disciplined but said some are front-line officers who operate checkpoints and some are supervisors.
Castelveter said it's important to note that every person who flew through the airport was screened.
"It's the random secondary (check) that did not happen," he said. "At no time was a traveler's safety at risk and there was no impact on flight operations."
But one aviation security expert said random checks are a crucial part of the security network, especially since TSA Administrator John Pistole has shifted from one-size-fits-all screenings to those that focus more on riskier passengers.
"If someone is gaming your system and knows pretty well what your procedures are, they will send agents to try to get things through on the basis that they can beat the system in place," said Billie Vincent, a former security director for the Federal Aviation Administration. "The random (check) then adds an element of unknown to the process which makes it more difficult to defeat … It's an essential part of the process."
As an example of the shift in TSA procedures, the agency allows travelers 12 or younger and 75 or older to keep their shoes on during screening — although they still may be selected for random checks.
In addition, the agency's PreCheck program, which is expanding to 35 airports this year, allows frequent fliers on certain airlines to provide more information about themselves and get expedited screening with possible random checks. At seven airports, pilots in uniform with work identification can bypass screening and head straight to their planes under a program called Known Crewmember.
Florida Republican Rep. John Mica, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the episode a "meltdown" by TSA. He said the incident was similar to others at Honolulu, Charlotte, N.C., and Newark, N.J., in which the agency disciplined workers for poor performance.
Mica supports returning many of the government's airport screening duties to the private sector, which handled security checkpoints before the 2001 terrorist attacks.