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Harold F. Hester

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Our Tribute to Peggy
By Harold F. Hester
Friday, January 25, 2008

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For the air-traveling public something you need to be aware of.


Which do you have the most extreme dislike?

A burglar

A rapist

A politician

An airport security screener

An overpaid professional athlete

An overpaid whiny celebrity

A person that gets away with Murder


Lois and Frank live in Woodbridge Virginia just outside the beltway. Both are educated, no children (yet), both work for the U.S. Government in Washington DC so they have a comfortable income. Both travel in their work and for vacations. 


They are world savvy and see many things around them as one. Where they differ is how they see people and their temperaments.


Lois is 28, Frank is 34.


This almost true story begins on a crisp morning in early February 2008


In a Typical Home Just Outside the Washington DC Beltway:

Frank and Lois were deep into raised conversation this morning and from Beth’s vantage point next door their sometimes heated conversation sounded like a draw. Both had their points but neither knew all the facts. Frank was the hard head and would not listen to Lois’s reasoning and Lois was too busy listening to her own voice to hear Frank’s limited opinions.


As is typical, Lois seemed to have the upper hand as her words reverberated with strength and resolve; (Each topic noted above has been summarized and truncated here for brevity – In actuality this conversation covered an hour and eighteen minutes) Lois was clear and enunciating clearly as she said;  “I feel comfortable in believing all people abhor burglars as they invade your homes and lives; rapist all deserve to be castrated; politicians need to tell the truth at least sometimes; athletes need to play their sports for the entertainment of others and be paid no more then $30.00 an hour; whiny and very young celebrities need to serve more then 85 minutes in the slammer if they have two DUIs and cocaine procession convictions while others should be made to keep their underwear on at all times; people with cameras should not be allowed to follow and record celebrities every moment and most of all the youth of our world should not make billionaires of these people that their only talents is singing (more often then not merely lip syncing) and acting.  People that get away with murder… well what more can I say about O.J. and Blake?”


During Lois’s soliloquy Beth reasoned Frank was trying to not get into any more trouble as she pictured him silently nodding at all the right times.   She knew them so well.


Frank had finished his orange juice and just refreshed their coffee as Lois with somewhat are a wrinkled brow said, “Frank what did I forget from my litany? There was something else I wanted to cover but I guess I forgot it…any idea what it was?”


Frank squirmed in his chair, rubbed his stubbed chin while searching his memory bank for what they had been talking about. He found it! “Security Screeners… airport screeners” he beamed. 


“RIGHT!” Lois’s backbone suddenly became ramrod straight as she threw her shoulders back and took a few deep breaths for what looked to be some sort of sermon on a work group that she really dislikes.

In just her latest episode with airport screeners she had been on a United flight 917 from Washington Dulles to SeaTac in Seattle over the Christmas holidays. The flight had a passenger personnel problem and was diverted to Pittsburg that delayed their flight for over four hours. She was still very upset from having undress (her words) in the Dulles security screening while losing some of her liquid cosmetics and what she characterized as being wane raped 


When it rains Lois will blame the republicans.  If she is late for work she blames the republicans and if her eggs are runny…yep… the republicans. Airport screeners she swears is a conspiracy of the republicans meant to keep the flying public subservant and brain washed. Public safety and terrorism?  No, not really.


Lois travels a lot by air but she just hasn’t yet gotten use to or accepted airport security and their procedure to try to keep her alive. 


With her first deep breath she exploded with, “Those people are illiterate. For what they do they are grossly overpaid and besides they speak very poor English, if at all; they are fat, dumb and lazy. How in the world will a private security organization hire such complete imbeciles?” Frank knew the who she was referring and because she was on a tear he just relaxed and sipped on his Baileys and coffee. He was taking mental notes so if she calmed a bit he could set her straight.


Frank is in luck this morning. The door bell rang and in steps a smiling and bouncy Beth, a neighbor and good friend from next door.


Normal morning pleasantries are exchanged before Beth asks Lois if there is anything she can help with or clarify on air port screeners.


You can see the light go on over Lois as she said, “That’s right; you’re a screener…Dulles – right?  I had forgotten.” The fact Beth had bluntly asked about the screeners had momentarily gone over Lois’s head. 

Beth smiled appropriately but didn’t say anything, just yet.


“You could hear our conversation?” Lois asked.


Beth was quick to respond with, “Well kinda. The wind was against me a little but from what I could hear and what Betty Lou told me when she stopped by a few minutes ago” I got the impression it might not be a bad idea to stop by and bring you up to speed. There has been lots happening with us screeners since 911 and, you are right in some of your thinking, but …” Beth’s voice trailed off as Lois interrupted with, “We would LOVE to hear about the screeners… wouldn’t we Frank?”


Frank knew when to be quiet so he merely nodded.


The propane fireplace was lit, Frank served Bailey’s and fresh coffee and as the three of them sat on a comfortable sofa Beth began:


“Well, where to begin?” it was rhetorical. She took a short breath while saying, “There are 43,000 of us now. We work for Uncle Sam now but back in early 2002 we were all civilian contracted. There were 55,000 of us then. Those numbers are not that impressive because we service more then 5,010 major airports under the FAA around the States.”


“FAA?” Lois questioned.


“Federal Aviation Administration”. Beth responded and continuing with “We work for the Government but we do not have the same rights and privileges as your normal white collar GS (general schedule) worker. Ok, there are benefits, but not like the other civilian government counterparts. A normal GS job has promotional steps and grades to make raises and advancement all but automatic. When we were created the administration made us specialized so there are no step advancements, so basically no raises. I can't see any of us being here long enough to enjoy the pension package....many of our employees are retired military so they might get something out of it. When we signed on we assumed that there would be grade increases and steps promotions. The best thing about it is the leave program. In the real world you don't earn useable leave right away, and we do. So I'm thankful for that. Otherwise, our starting salary is pretty much what we'll make forever, and for 12 bucks and hour,…” Beth paused briefly before bristling with, “I will kiss no ones ass…but I will do my job.” Beth lightened a bit saying with a knowing crooked grin, “But because I am such a nice person, on the job I am one of the friendliest even when we have problem passengers, I am the one who has to deal with them in a professional manner. It can be a quick painless procedure. Most people are pleasant and we know most of our frequent travelers, so they don't have to listen to the speech asking them for laptops etc. As for the shoe thing, I disagree with the procedure but I’m not a decision makers so am sure there’s something, somewhere far above my pay grade that knows more than me.


Oh, while I’m thinking about it we are not called Screeners anymore. Since 2002 it’s just the initials TSA”


Lois again questioned the letters as Beth said, “Transportation Security Administration”.


Beth sipped her baileys and added something Betty Sue had told her. “Not everyone that works for the TSA is suffering from low IQ. Most of us have college degrees, which unfortunately in this town does not guarantee a high paying job. Many are stuck in the $12-$13/hour positions. Some of us are military spouses, those with in-between jobs, students, and many just looking for experience.  For me, I had a job I loved and enjoyed going to work, however this "opportunity" at the time seemed like a good chance to get a foot in the federal door. NONE of us knew how it would be when we signed on. It is certainly not a picnic for us dealing with holier than thou passengers who do God-knows-what for a living, but criticize what we do. We do not question how many people we piss off each day but expressions tells many stories. Ours just happens to be the public’s most hated occupation of the moment. Everyone has someone that hates them because of their job. It just really is hard in ours. We don't want sympathy; we just want a little cooperation. We are not wand raping anyone or anal probing anyone. We are simply screening bags and passengers. I resent people saying they're naked, when they simply have to remove their shoes. Most of us try to do our jobs well. I agree a small percentage of the TSA folks are on power trips, but that’s true in every profession – right?”


Frank finished his Baileys and substituted a VO and water. Lois was surprisingly very attentive as Beth seemed to have her undivided attention.


Beth began again saying, “When I started my screening position I had to learn a whole new language for TSA, ETD, IED, EDS, VAP, ETP and the occasional now famous synonyms: acclaimed, celebrated, distinguished, eminent, exalted, and of course; important.” Adding with some importance – everyone is important!”


Lois changed Beth’s train of thought quietly asking “Do you screen many each day?”


As matter-of-factly as Beth could muster she said, “2 million” She let that number sink in and followed with, “that is on average what we screen daily, nationwide”


The number appeared to astound Lois as it was repeated, “2 MILLION….EACH DAY” … “Holy cow. I had no idea” The words were apologetic and sincere.


Beth saw this as a good time to tell some about what the TSA folks ran into each day. She said, “For me at Dulles I spend eight-plus hours a day standing watch at a security checkpoint, I have learned a few things about the traveling public. Among them:” Grinning from ear to ear said,

• “The condition of their socks is, for the most part, not bad.
• A surprising number are packing harmonicas.
• Passengers are much more malleable when they understand what's going on.” 


That last point can be a challenge for the screeners particularly in those weeks following a potential plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners sparked a ban on carry-on liquids, gels and other seemingly innocuous substances. 


Witness this exchange at Dulles International Airport where then screener Peggy Johns is fishing through a black carry-on finding a can of Edge shaving cream, a tube of Crest toothpaste and a bottle of Calvin Klein cologne. 


The bag's owner silently watched knowing he could not affect what happened next. 


"Is there anyone outside security you could give these to?" Peggy asks.


"Nope. No time," The owner said as he watched $40 or so in grooming aids unceremoniously tossed into a one-way gray plastic bin. 


“I’m sorry but I think you understand.” Peggy said with an apologetic crooked smile. He did. 

It is just after 3:30 p.m., crunch time at the nation's 21st busiest airport, where Peggy and her colleagues are teetering on the front lines of TSA's balancing act between ensuring the safety of the 30,000 passengers who pass through here daily and delivering customer service. 

The critics are vocal: The screening process is mere window dressing. The rules are inconsistent. (Why isn't lip gloss allowed on board, but KY Jelly is?) The enforcement is arbitrary, they say. 

A quip among frequent fliers: TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around. 

Seven years ago, the job that has put Peggy on a management track and brought meaning to her days didn't exist. But that was before terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. 911.

Peggy, now 28, became a screener with a private security company at Dulles in May 2002 and joined the first wave of government screeners when the TSA took over airport security later that year. 

Beth continued speaking in a matter-of-factly voice saying “Dulles employs 671 full-time-equivalent TSAs at 21 security lanes at a single central checkpoint. By comparison, TSA's largest operation at Los Angeles International, which has eight terminals and eight separate checkpoints, employs three times that number.

Lois interrupted Beth saying, “I have seen some TSA people that didn’t seem to meet the standards your describing Beth, There’s….” Beth cut Lois short saying, “Screeners undergo criminal-background and medical checks. They have to be able to lift 70 pounds, be proficient in English and be U.S. citizens. New hires complete 40 to 60 hours of training, and everyone is subject to up to three hours of additional training weekly.” That didn’t satisfy Lois.

Beth added, “OK. Your right…in some cases.” Then with wisdom far beyond her years she added, “We work for the government and like many of our government branches we have our dead-heads, our slackers and as little as we are paid, as much as I hate to admit it, even some of the TSAs are overpaid. If I had to make a personnel comparisons to other branches of the government I would say the Veterans Administration is far worse then us.” 

By this time Frank had offered and had been accepted fixing a VO and water for Beth. Two quick sips and she continued with, “Have I told you that Peggy is now a supervisor?”

Lois didn’t answer one way or the other but shrugged her shoulders. 

Good. Beth still had her undivided attention. Frank was happy with his VO. Beth sipped her drink then said, “This may not seem important to you now BUT as a TSA supervisor, Peggy's turf covers two to four security lanes, working with a team of six to 12 that rotates positions every 30 minutes to remain fresh in executing duties that could quickly become monotonous. Peggy and other like her must have people skills and be special in what they do.”

From the look on Lois’s face Beth felt she needed to explain further. 

“Supervisors continually move from the walk-through metal detector to the X-ray monitor to the bag-search position to the secondary-screening spot to the explosive-trace detection machine and so on. They carry two-way radios but are always in ear-shot of their posts.

Peggy steps in when there's a questionable X-ray image, or a bag search that needs an assist, or the discovery of a weapon or, as she puts it, to deal with customer concerns that are escalating.” 

"Sometimes people are very attached to certain items," Frank tried. 

“True… so very true Frank” Beth responded then added “Minor dramas play out throughout each shift. For example, the woman who got separated from her son in the security line. The baby who threw up. (Peggy only has to call for cleanup; TSAs don't deal with bodily fluids.) The forgotten boarding passes. The mother whose toddler is crying and fidgeting inside the explosives trace portal (a walk-in device that shoots air from its walls and, in a child's eyes, might appear at best a funhouse amusement and at worst a torture device). Summoned by another screener, Peggy asks if the woman can make her daughter stand still but is told she has autism and could not stand perfectly still so Peggy enters the machine, wraps her arms around the girl and takes her through.

Amid this aural migraine, Peggy remains unflappable. After four years on the job, she has become weary of the strange (and strained) intimacies of the pat-down search, or the cluelessness of so many travelers after so long some still don't understand that box cutters are not permissible, she doesn't show it. 

"When people are traveling, they have a lot on their minds. I have to believe that." Beth muttered between cold alcoholic sips.

She continued with “Preoccupation would explain the woman who departed his security lane wearing only one shoe.  She later returned for the other one.  Or the woman who walked away wearing the blue paper checkpoint-issued slippers. And speaking of shoes, the TSA screeners are repeatedly subjected to the ripe scent of feet unleashed from their stifling confines, August and is our worst month. The TSA thoughtfully provides air freshener at the checkpoints, to be used discreetly by personnel as necessary. 

Beth relays that Peggy has unwittingly tipped off parents to their children's vices by withdrawing cigarette lighters, and in one instance, a bag of marijuana from their carry on. She and her colleagues have learned to watch for pet-toting passengers who absentmindedly send them through the X-ray machines. And she has caught travelers who are still bringing in banned sharp implements, which, when detected, are deposited in a metal cabinet with a one-way opening. Supervisors like Peggy help determine whether the offending carriers were simply absentminded or are artfully concealing, which can bring a civil fine of up to $10,000.

If Peggy was ever easily embarrassed, she isn't anymore. She sometimes tells the story that occurred once in Chicago, in which a young man packing a male enhancement device in his carry-on told the querying screener it was a bomb to avoid a humiliating admission in front of his mother. Peggy shrugs and says most personal devices are allowed and don't elicit so much as titters from screeners. "They come through so often, there's not much to talk about," she says. 

In the days following the latest new restrictions, the TSA fielded questions that shed light on the remarkable stuff travelers feel compelled to tote along. 

Was aerosol cheese allowed? (No.) Tanning towelettes? (Yes.) Goldfish? (Only without the water.) Peggy isn't one to question their motives. She has watched a chainsaw come down the conveyor belt (sans blade, but disallowed because it was loaded with gasoline). Then there was Thomas Jefferson's garden trowel being transported by a museum employee. (Not even a presidential trowel is allowed on board.) And a kitchen sink. (It got checked.)

And oddly, for reasons Peggy has yet to discern, lots of harmonicas. 

Beth seemed proud of herself and the information she had given Lois and Frank. Actually she was a bit surprised with herself. Some of the information she gave had been the first time she had heard the words. She knew the facts to be true ; she knew she had been accurate and she knew, well pretty sure Lois had appreciated now knowing screeners are actually not all fat, dumb and lazy but hard working peoples that do the very best they can and under all adverse human conditions.

That should be the end of this story. Lois is happy now knowing her screeners are actually honest hard working people just like herself but as luck and fate have a tendency to not leave well enough alone the Cable TV History Channel that is featured in 52 countries ran a special on SCREENERS only two weeks after Lois returned from a weeks TDY in Paris.

March 23, 2008
The History Channel
SUBJECT THIS EVENING: Airport Passenger Screening
Narrator: Hunter Elliss


Hunter is square jawed, casually dressed and looks like a combat jet fighter pilot. He LOOKS believable as he began the show.  “It seems like every time someone tests airport security, airport security fails. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 30 percent of guns and 60 percent of (fake) bombs. And recently testers were able to smuggle bomb-making parts through airport security in 21 of 21 attempts. It makes you wonder why we're all putting our laptops in a separate bin and taking off our shoes. Although we should all be glad that Richard Reid wasn't the underwear bomber. 

The failure to detect bomb-making parts is easier to understand. Break up something into small enough parts, and it's going to slip past the screeners pretty easily. The explosive material won't show up on the metal detector, and the associated electronics can look benign when disassembled. This isn't even a new problem. It's widely believed that the Chechen women who blew up the two Russian planes in August 2004 probably smuggled their bombs aboard the planes in pieces.


But guns and knives? That surprises most people.


Airport screeners have a difficult job, primarily because the human brain isn't naturally adapted to the task. We're wired for visual pattern matching, and are great at picking out something we know to look for -- for example, a lion in a sea of tall grass.


But we're much less adept at detecting random exceptions in uniform data. Faced with an endless stream of identical objects, the brain quickly concludes that everything is identical and there's no point in paying attention. By the time the exception comes around, the brain simply doesn't notice it. This psychological phenomenon isn't just a problem in airport screening: It's been identified in inspections of all kinds, and is why casinos move their dealers around so often. The tasks are simply mind-numbing.


To make matters worse, the smuggler can try to exploit the system. He can position the weapons in his baggage just so. He can try to disguise them by adding other metal items to distract the screeners. He can disassemble bomb parts so they look nothing like bombs. Against a bored screener, he has the upper hand.


And, as has been pointed out again and again in essays on the ludicrousness of post-911 airport security, improvised weapons is a huge problem. A rock, a battery for a laptop, a belt, the extension handle off a wheeled suitcase, fishing line, the bare hands of someone who knows karate ... the list goes on and on.


Technology can help. X-ray machines already randomly insert test bags into the stream -- keeping screeners more alert. Computer-enhanced displays are making it easier for screeners to find contraband items in luggage, and eventually the computers will be able to do most of the work. It makes sense: Computers excel at boring repetitive tasks. They should do the quick sort, and let the screeners deal with the exceptions.

Sure, there'll be a lot of false alarms, and some bad things will still get through. But it's better than the alternative.

And it's likely good enough. Remember the point of passenger screening. We're not trying to catch the clever, organized, well-funded terrorists. We're trying to catch the amateurs and the incompetent. We're trying to catch the unstable. We're trying to catch the copycats. These are all legitimate threats, and we're smart to defend against them. Against the professionals, we're just trying to add enough uncertainty into the system that they'll choose other targets instead.

The terrorists' goals have nothing to do with airplanes; their goals are to cause terror. Blowing up an airplane is just a particular attack designed to achieve that goal. Airplanes deserve some additional security because they have catastrophic failure properties: If there's even a small explosion, everyone on the plane dies. But there's a diminishing return on investments in airplane security. If the terrorists switch targets from airplanes to shopping malls, we haven't really solved the problem.

What that means is that a basic cursory screening is good enough. If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn't spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.

When I travel in Europe, I never have to take my laptop out of its case or my shoes off my feet. Those governments have had far more experience with terrorism than the U.S. government, and they know when passenger screening has reached the point of diminishing returns. They also implemented checked-baggage security measures decades before the United States did -- again recognizing the real threat.


And if I were investing in security, I would invest in intelligence and investigation. The best time to combat terrorism is before the terrorist tries to get on an airplane. The best countermeasures have value regardless of the nature of the terrorist plot or the particular terrorist target.

In some ways, if we're relying on airport screeners to prevent terrorism, it's already too late. After all, we can't keep weapons out of prisons. How can we ever hope to keep them out of Airports?

Several TSA screeners claim the agency has failed to adequately address a litany of problems they face at airports nationwide, including discrimination against minorities and veterans, selective hiring and firing practices, nepotism and management violations. They expressed frustration over the problems and said that in some cases security is being compromised. Some screeners want a congressional inquiry into the situation and an outside organization to provide oversight of TSA because they have lost faith in the agency's ability to resolve problems internally.

Remember also; Even though the government's 43,000 airport screeners do not have full civil service rights, they still can file claims under the Constitution a U.S. appeals court has ruled. RIF protection, yearly step pay increases, sick leave is not automatic. The TSA's starting salaries range between $23,600 and $35,400, and benefits include health care, life insurance, paid vacation and sick leave. The screeners receive 44 hours of classroom training, 60 hours of on-the-job training and a promise of advancement if they do well.

Screener, TSA folks are human just like you and I and with all our human frailties.

The next time you are standing in a screening line in your stocking feet try being patient and remember;


When I die, I want to go peacefully like my Grandfather did -- in his sleep. Not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car. Virginia Woolf British novelist and essayist.




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