Airport Screener Cuts May Reduce 'Standing Around'

Airport visitors may soon notice that fewer security workers are milling about, but transportation officials say that may not be a bad thing.

The Transportation Security Administration (search) recently announced it will cut 3,000 airport screening jobs by the end of September, on top of the 3,000 announced in March. The first round of cuts will be made by May 31. TSA expects to save about $280 million.

Travelers and security experts say cutting back on bodies doesn't mean passengers should feel less secure, particularly since TSA is often jokingly referred to as "Thousands Standing Around."

"It just makes common sense you have to reduce them a little bit," said airline security expert John Sullivant. "Part of the problem, I think, is the overreaction of dumping bodies into the airports up front, which I think a lot of it was done to pacify the public ... I think they have a better handle on a closer assessment of what they really need right now."

TSA currently has about 55,600 baggage screeners scattered throughout the nation's 429 commercial airports. The cuts represent about 11 percent of that workforce.

"While we still live in a dangerous world, it is also time to assess our workplace requirements in relation to budget realities," Adm. James M. Loy (search), TSA administrator, said last week.

Congress last year put a cap of 45,000 screeners TSA could plant in airports. TSA says the cutbacks and other measures will increase efficiency.

"It's about time," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee (search). "America has too much riding on TSA to allow it to waste money and turn into a bloated federal bureaucracy.

"Current staffing levels are out of hand, and in many airports, dozens of TSA employees are screening handfuls of passengers," he added.

Soon after its establishment after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many criticized the TSA for putting too many screeners on the job too quickly with too much taxpayer money.

These critics are hailing the step back, saying the same job can be done with fewer people.

"I can't imagine this is going to have any negative impact on security. I think there would be room for even further cutbacks if the TSA were to manage more rationally," said Bob Poole, director of transportation for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. He suggested TSA bring in part-time workers during peak hours.

"I think they can cut staff and maintain a reasonable level of security," said Tom Palumbo, a legal assistant in Fairfax, Va., who boarded a plane at both Baltimore-Washington International and Logan International airports carrying a pocketknife and a long nail file in his carry-on bag.

One woman from Washington complained that in various airports in Austin, Texas, and Chicago, TSA workers stood around while lines grew longer because not all checkpoints were open.

At the same time, others say screeners have not proven the most effective security personnel. In early April, a woman who set off a metal detector at BWI managed to elude screeners. The airport was temporarily shut down.

Screeners have also been faulted for not having the capacity to get operations back to normal once an alarm is proven false.

For instance, Ana Simmons' brother set off a metal detector at Reagan National Airport in Washington last December. The culprit, which security machines read as an explosive, was a packet of Metamucil. Simmons' brother was forced to stand around waiting for the OK to get a boarding pass.

TSA workers "were standing around looking at each other like 'there's nothing we can do,'" Simmons, a Rockville, Md., resident, said. "It's like they don't have any authority to make any decisions or think for themselves. That's not something they're paid for."

Other travelers say they don't mind the excess. TSA says it intercepted more than 4.8 million prohibited items in its first year alone.

"It does seem, for the most part, that they're working," said Washington resident Alysa Ullman, who has been randomly stopped at least four times to have her bag checked. "Right now, I feel like there may be more [screeners] than there should be … [but] as long as people's security isn't being jeopardized, I don't think there is a problem with there being cuts."

Baltimore resident Jason Cohen said, "it's comforting seeing them in a place with many people checking around.

"I do see more screeners than necessary, but if they feel that cutting these jobs will not sacrifice any security measures at all, then I have no problem with it," he said.

Others say despite the complaints, the screeners do put travelers at ease.

"I think certainly the quality of the screeners that we have now is better than what there was prior to 9/11 — no question about it," Poole said. "But there just isn't enough for them to do most of the time."