May 1, 2003 -- The expected layoffs of thousands of airport security screeners may not weaken security, but it could make for long, painful waits in airline boarding lines, experts say.
The Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday announced plans to lay off 6,000 of its 55,600 airport screeners nationwide — 3,000 by the end of this month and another 3,000 by September. The cutbacks, the TSA said, are designed to help airport security become more efficient, help the federal agency meet its budget and provide $2.3 billion to airlines to help them cover their security costs since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"While we still live in a dangerous world, it also is time to assess our workplace requirements in relation to budget realities," Adm. James M. Loy, TSA administrator, said in a statement. "This means looking at the level of screener staffing at every airport, how many are part time, how many are full time, and whether they are on duty at the right time, when passenger traffic is heaviest."
Screeners at heavily staffed airports will be able to seek transfers to less-staffed airports, and some full-time staffers will start working part time. In addition, starting May 31, the TSA will no longer require law enforcement officials at every security checkpoint, and Loy said this will improve, not weaken, security.
Not Necessarily More Convenient
Loy said he felt confident the screeners will still be able to meet security goals while satisfying customer needs. Still, flying may not be any more convenient for travelers.
Passengers may still feel like their privacy is being invaded. A 10-minute wait limit for passengers is still the goal, but critics say that is unrealistic. The lines were long with an overstaffed work force and may only get longer with fewer screeners doing more work.
"You've seen the lines at the airports," said Mike Boyd, president of The Boyd Group/ASRC Inc., an aviation, research and forecasting company in Evergreen, Colo. "You just sit back now and watch [what will happen]."
Still, arguably, passengers' unfamiliarity with screening procedures, not primarily screener incompetence, caused long lines. Now that time has passed and passengers and screeners have become more accustomed to the procedures, concerns about longer lines may be exaggerated.
"I don't think the lines will be longer," said Randy Peterson, editor of Insider Flyer magazine. "We've had time to become familiar with the [screening] procedures, and we know what to expect. And we're not standing on any [new] lines that we haven't had to stand on before."
Overdue Correction or Drop in the Bucket?
Some experts believe these new measures are long overdue.
"Between Congress putting pressure on the TSA to reign in its bureaucracy and airports complaining of overstaffing around the country, I'm not surprised," said former Federal Aviation Administration chief counsel Ken Quinn. "Any reduction in its work force will make for a much more efficient screening process."
The cuts seem to address critics in Congress who believed the TSA grew too large too fast. In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government created the TSA and overhauled passenger- and baggage-screening systems at U.S. airports, creating a federal work force to replace private screening companies contracted by airlines. To get around a mandated cap of 45,000 full-time screeners, the TSA hired 9,000 temporary workers, most of whom were given five-year contracts.
Though the TSA says the reduced work force aims to meet the individual needs of the nation's 429 commercial airports, some argue that the cutbacks are not enough — and security will not be improved.
"It's just a drop in the bucket. It should be 10,000 [layoffs]," said Boyd. "These are not security people, mind you. These are just guys who are moderately trained to look for pointy objects. Anyone who tells you that this will improve security is either a politician or works for the TSA.
"The TSA is in dire need of a major overhaul from top to bottom," Boyd continued. "There is no one above the TSA that's not affiliated with them that can hold them accountable for mistakes. So when mistakes are made they either don't acknowledge them or they pass the blame."
Getting the Best From the Best
Loy said that the reduction in screeners and revised use of law enforcement at checkpoints would enable officers to perform more surveillance and be seen by more passengers.
Loy also announced that he would sign letters of intent for about 20 airports to provide federal aid for the installation of explosives-detection equipment. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Boston's Logan International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Denver International Airport are among those that could receive aid.
The streamlined work force may also make TSA officials use its screeners to focus on more credible airport security threats.
"The good news is that I think we can be rest assured that we're getting the best of the best screeners," said Peterson. "If anything, this almost proves what the TSA said, that it wouldn't operate like a typical government agency and keep people whether they were needed or not. The reduction also acknowledges that air traffic isn't what it used to be, especially before Sept.11."
Nothing to Fear
The screener reduction will save the TSA approximately $30 million to $35 million this year, and it is estimated that it will save the agency $280 million in 2004. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York stands to lose the most screeners — 396 — while Pittsburgh International Airport will lose 230 workers. The airport in Yakakut, Alaska, will see its screening staff increase from one to 16.
Despite the screener reduction, especially in larger airports, experts argue that passengers should not be alarmed. Airports — and the government as a whole — are still more vigilant about combating terror and security threats now than they were before the 9/11 attacks.
"They should not be concerned about anything that came out of this announcement," Quinn said. "The efforts of the intelligence and counterintelligence communities and the Bush administration's action against terror in Afghanistan and war effort in Iraq have significantly hampered, if not destroyed, terror groups' ability and willingness to carry out attacks. The threat has been degraded significantly."