Feds take over airport security New screeners at Sky Harbor, across nation better trained

Dave Cruz/The Arizona Republic

Airline passengers across the nation will find a change in security today, as federal Transportation Security Administration personnel take over what had been positions contracted through private employers.

By William Hermann
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 19, 2002

About 45,000 newly trained federal employees take charge of security at airports across the nation today, including at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport.

Earl Maxie, 62, is one of the Transportation Security Administration's new passenger checkers, and he says agency personnel "are much better trained than before to protect the public."

"I worked for the private firm that handled security here before, and we got only a couple days of classroom training and several days on-the-job training," Maxie said. "But the TSA gave us 44 hours in the classroom and about 60 hours on the job. We really know what we're doing."

The Transportation Security Administration was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with a primary mission of ensuring security at the nation's airports. Private firms then employed most airport security personnel, but Congress mandated that all would be federal employees. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta announced Monday that all checkpoints are now federalized.

Local Transportation Security Administration Director Marcia Florian said security personnel are polite, professional and well-trained.

There are about 965 administration employees at Sky Harbor, with about 140 of them still completing on-the-job training.

Figures were not available on how many had worked for private airport security firms before the changeover.

Sky Harbor Director David Krietor said he was relieved that the transition from private to federally trained security guards went smoothly, but he grimaced when he talked about, "the 2-ton gorilla still looming over us."

That gorilla is luggage screening.

Congress last year also mandated that all luggage, not just carry-on bags, must be screened by the end of this year. Krietor fears getting that done could result in considerable passenger backups.

Florian said that if pressed, she and her crew would be able to get in place enough explosive trace equipment and X-ray machines to screen all bags, but she, too, would rather have more time.

The House of Representatives last week extended the luggage-search deadline for one year and the Senate is expected to vote on the matter this week.

"I hope it happens," Krietor said. "We want a very customer-friendly environment, and having more time on this problem will help us get that in place."

Meanwhile, Florian's newly trained security personnel in their white shirts, blue trousers, blue ties and symbolic gold TSA badges with nine stars and 11 stripes will deal with the same daily issues airport security personnel have always dealt with.

They're reminding passengers who will fly during the holidays not to bring wrapped packages, because the wrapping will have to be taken off to inspect what's inside. They're telling passengers not to have camera film in checked bags because of potential damage caused by X-ray machines. And they're dealing with the usual flood of contraband.

"You'd think people would have figured out by now what they can't bring to the airport," Florian said, pointing to a table near a security checkpoint. On the table were a screwdriver, several knives, a corkscrew, scissors, pliers and other items confiscated from passengers. About 200 such items are taken each day at Sky Harbor.

Maxie also looked at the table, but only smiled. "I had a lady show me her key chain and on it was a Mace sprayer," he said. "When I told her it was a problem, she started to cry because she was afraid she was going to be arrested.

"But I told her not to cry; she wasn't in trouble and we'd just take the sprayer," he said. "We try to be nice, you know."

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