July 27, 2002
Airports encounter obstacles in hiring screeners
Many applicants fail to show up
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – As it works against a tight deadline for hiring
thousands of passenger screeners at airports, a federal security
agency has had trouble filling the jobs in some major cities.
Numerous applicants have failed to show up for skill assessments
and a high percentage of those who did flunked, according to the
Transportation Department's internal watchdog.
Officials say it's too early to tell whether similar problems will
plague San Diego's Lindbergh Field. The Transportation Security
Administration, or TSA, started accepting applications for federal
screening positions at Lindbergh this week.
Michael Aguilar, the airport's federal security director, said he has
made a point of reaching out to the existing work force, which he
expects to constitute the bulk of applicants, so they are prepared
for the process.
"Hopefully, that will contribute to a large majority of them passing
the test," he said. "They are a skilled and experienced set of
screeners. We are hoping many of them are successful."
Aguilar expects 500 to 600 screeners to be hired at Lindbergh.
Contractors for the TSA are still assessing the airport's needs to
arrive at an exact number.
Nationwide, the TSA is trying to recruit a work force of 33,000 to
check passengers for weapons and other contraband at 429
airports by Nov. 19. It must also hire an estimated 21,600
baggage screeners as it tries to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for
checking all luggage for bombs.
Both deadlines were imposed in a sweeping aviation security law,
passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that made airport
security screening a federal responsibility.
Previously, airlines contracted with private companies to do the
job. The attacks highlighted major flaws in that system, including
low pay, high turnover, lax training and poor performance.
The TSA will have to hire and train more than 7,600 screeners a
month before Nov. 19 to meet the deadline, Alexis Stefani, an
assistant inspector general for the Transportation Department, said
in a report to Congress this week.
The TSA has completed the hiring process at six mostly smaller
airports and at three terminals at New York's John F. Kennedy
Despite ramping up its effort in recent weeks and making progress
toward the deadline, the TSA "is still having difficulties in hiring
enough screeners in major metropolitan areas such as New York,
Boston and Chicago," Stefani said.
"The delays in hiring are largely due to the high percent of 'no
shows' and the number of applicants failing the aptitude test
portion of the assessment process," she added.
Twenty-six percent of qualified candidates for positions at
Baltimore-Washington International Airport – the largest airport to
complete the hiring process so far – failed to come in for
assessments. Based on that experience, the TSA now expects
one-third of all applicants not to show up, Stefani reported.
At some airports, large numbers of applicants are failing the first
phase of the assessment process, which consists of a
computer-based test of English proficiency and overall aptitude.
Sixty-one percent of the applicants for jobs at New York's three
major airports failed, as did 53 percent at Baltimore-Washington,
The TSA has also had difficulty attracting enough female
applicants to ensure that female passengers are "wanded" by
screeners of the same gender, an agency goal.
Officials are at a loss to explain the high number of applicants who
haven't showed up for assessments. They had set the starting
salary range fairly high – $23,600 to $35,400, plus local
cost-of-living adjustments – to attract candidates.
But they said a high failure rate among applicants was anticipated.
"To some degree it is not surprising to the administration that there
would be a significant number of people who could not pass the
test to become a federal screener. And that is by design . . . in
part to ensure that there is a federal security work force that is
much better trained and highly qualified," said Lenny Alcivar, a
Transportation Department spokesman.
The struggles at some of the major airports have provided fodder
to critics of the Nov. 19 deadline.
"They won't meet it, never could meet it. That's an impossible
task," said Billie Vincent, a former Federal Aviation Administration
official who now heads an aviation security consulting business.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told lawmakers this
week that hiring is on pace.
"If you want to look at what our benchmarks have been in terms
of what our expectation (was) of the number of employees of the
new work force, we are on schedule," he said.
However, Mineta also suggested that because of inadequate
funding from Congress, the TSA might not be able to meet its
deadlines. He warned that more than two dozen airports might see
major delays as a result.
That was an about-face from his earlier insistence that the
deadlines would be met, even as lawmakers were considering cuts
in the TSA spending request.
Aguilar, Lindbergh's security director, said he was confident the
hiring deadline can be met in San Diego.
"Like any start-up organization or change, there are always going
to be hiccups," he said. "But there are no show-stoppers for San
Diego at this point."